The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver
The first title that the group chose was a big book with lots to discuss. An American Southern Baptist takes his wife and four daughters off to Africa as missionaries. The book is narrated by the four girls in turns, each adding their own unique viewpoint to the telling of the tale. For some reason, I remember not liking it that much, even though the rest of the group loved it. I think I should maybe re-read it - sometimes I think you just have to be in the right kind of mood to appreciate some books.
Unless - Carol Shields
This book I loved. The central character, Rita, is a forty-something writer coping with being a mother and a wife and a daughter as well as having a career, when her teenage daughter inexplicably starts living on the street and not speaking. I loved the beautiful writing style and felt totally drawn to and empathetic toward Rita. I had never read anything by Carol Shields before - I'm so glad the group introduced me to her. I've since read and loved The Stone Diaries and Larry's Party. Carol Shields wrote Unless after she'd been diagnosed with cancer, and she died soon afterwards, in 2004.
The Star of The Sea - Joseph O'Connor
The Star of The Sea is the name of a ship traveling from Ireland to America in 1847. The book follows the stories of various crew members and passengers from first class to steerage. All their stories are somehow intermingled and connected, like the cast of a Dickens novel. I did enjoy this book, and it got a general thumbs up from the whole group. Joseph O'Connor (brother of the famous Sinead O'Connor) has just released a new book called Redemption Falls.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time - Mark Haddon
I loved this book too. Told from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy with Asperger's syndrome, it is very readable and funny as well as being quite deep and meaningful. It was also fascinating to me to get into the mind of somebody with Asperger's as I have a nephew with this condition.
Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier
The story of an American civil war soldier, Inman, who deserts by walking out of hospital and across America to return to his home and the girl he left behind. Meanwhile the girl, Ada, has troubles of her own after her dad died leaving her alone. I very much enjoyed this book, although I found myself wishing the passages about Inman would hurry up and end so I could get back to Ada and her friend and helper, the irascible but wonderful Ruby.
Dubliners - James Joyce
I have to admit that I found it a real struggle getting through Dubliners. I think I was alone in this, the others in the group raved about how much they love Joyce. Perhaps it's because I'm the only one who grew up outside Ireland, because the characters that Joyce portrayed all seemed to evoke memories of grandparents or other people known to the other group members, but not really to me. And I'm told that Dubliners, being a series of short stories, is easier to read than other books by James Joyce. I shudder to think.
Buddha Da - Anne Donovan
You nearly have to read this book out loud to get a grip on the Glaswegian dialect, but it's worth persevering. A middle aged Scottish painter and decorator, his wife, and his teen-aged daughter, all tell in their own words what happens to the family when 'Da' decides to embrace Buddhism. It's funny and heartbreaking and thought provoking.
The Bookseller of Kabul - Asne Seierstad
This book gives a fascinating account of life in Afghanistan at a normal family level. It is a book that I felt I learned a lot from, and I'm glad I read it, but it is not up there with my favourite books. This is maybe because the style was more journalistic than artistic, which I guess is because the book is written by a journalist who had lived in the country and researched the characters. I don't know why I prefer fiction to non-fiction so much. Maybe because life seldom works out quite so poetically as art.
The Colour - Rose Tremain
I had never heard of Rose Tremain before the book group read The Colour, and I instantly fell in love with her. Her writing is like belgian chocolate - smooth and divine, and more-ish. I've read several more of her books now and love them all. The colour is set in New Zealand's gold rush and it's a harsh and sad tale, but unlike some of the people who reviewed in on Amazon, I found myself totally connecting with the main character, Harriet. The scenes near the end with Chen, 'the china-man' were so beautiful - and that thing he did with her feet had us book group ladies giggling like schoolgirls!
Small Island - Andrea Levy
Small Island is set during and after WW2. It follows the story of Hortense and her husband Gilbert, Jamaicans moving to the 'Mother Country' where they expected to be welcomed, but were in fact treated abysmally; and Queenie and Bernard, whose house they lodged in. I really liked this book too, it is funny as well as moving, and the plot is gripping - set in Jamaica, London and India and told from the points of view of the four main characters.
St Agnes Stand - Thomas Eidson
When someone suggested this book for the book group to read I have to admit I was horrified. A western! I like watching movies of many genres but westerns leave me bored to tears. Never one to shirk my responsibilities, I bought the book and gritted my teeth and started reading only to find - yes, you've guessed it, I loved it! I felt like I was sauntering through the desert with Nat and his dog called dog. Some parts were a bit overly gruesome, although I guess that added to the tension as Nat the cowboy helped to protect a band of nuns and orphans against attack from bloodthirsty Indians. I was moved to tears (and not of boredom) and hugely satisfied by the clever working out of the plot. Who'd have thought it?
Feel (Robbie Williams) - Chris Heath
I had been quite a closet fan of Robbie Williams - until I read Feel.This is the only one of all the book group books before or since that I haven't managed to finish. In fact the only member of the group that did finish it was new and thought we'd be cross with her if she didn't. It is dire. I know celebrities have a hard time with the media and what not (bless 'em) but poor Robbie just comes across as a self centered child telling tales about how everyone is being mean to him. I didn't find the writing engaging or interesting. I don't like to be critical, but I really can't find anything good to say about this book.
The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
Henry has a genetic condition that makes him hop somewhat randomly through time throughout his own lifetime. His story, and that of his wife are told in a chaotic, sometimes funny and increasingly poignant manner. The plot may sound far-fetched but it is told in a such believable way that it seems almost normal. I loved this book. I was gripped and fascinated, and horrified as the ending became more and more inevitable. I wish I'd have written it!
Frankie and Stankie - Barbara Trapido
Frankie and Stankie is about a white girl growing up in South Africa under Apartheid. It was well recieved in the group, although I don't think it was one of my favourites. I can't put my finger on why I don't really love this book. I've read a couple more Trapido books (Juggling and Temples of Delight) which I have enjoyed. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka
I did like this book. The story of two estranged sisters coping with their 84 year-old widowed father's new 36 year-old girlfriend. Complicated family dynamics tied up with an interesting history and the writer's flair for the comic made this for me a very enjoyable read. I've heard the new book by Marina Lewycka (Two Caravans) doesn't get such good reviews. I still want to read it though.
East of Eden - John Steinbeck
I remembered reading 'Of Mice and Men' at school, and although I knew it was a good book, it hung under the cloud of memories of essays and comprehensions, so when the book club suggested East of Eden, I thought, 'okay, it will do us good, I suppose.' Not long into it though, I realised that here was a book worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Forget education, reading should be a pleasure, and reading East of Eden was just that. An American classic, but with all the life and excitement of modern literature. If you haven't read Steinbeck, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa
Once again my opinion differed from the rest of the group's regarding Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter. Most people thought it was a little too strange and unbelievable, but I LOVED it. I think I have a taste for things that are a bit weird, and I'm finding I have a taste for South American books - I also loved 'Like Water for Chocolate' and Louis De Berniers South American Trilogy - the crazy mix of melodrama and magical realism just draws me in. I don't know what that says about me!
The Five People you meet in heaven - Mitch Albom
I read this book while on holiday in Barbados - I guess it would be hard to feel negative about any book read in that idyllic setting. It's quite a short book, and very American in it's feel (which can be a little off-putting for us Brits), but I did really enjoy it. An old man dies saving a little girl from a fair ground accident. He is met in 'heaven' by five people who he had important interactions with during his life, and by meeting them we learn his life story. I cried buckets as I read it, then I read it out loud to my daughter (she was eleven at the time) and I cried buckets again. (Rebecca didn't cry - she gave me an 'oh mum!' withering look).
Stuart - A life backwards - Alexander Masters
This is the story of a homeless man, told by a Cambridge graduate who met him and decided to write about him. It isn't really an easy read, Stuart, as Alexander Masters points out, can be annoying and frustrating. As we delve into his past though, we gain some understanding and sympathy for his state, and that of some of the other homeless people around him. Being journalistic and not a work of fiction, it wouldn't be my favourite choice as reading matter - but that's just me. The rest of the group loved it.
My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult
This is the only Jodi Picoult book I've read, and I was fascinated to read it because its plot is similar to the real-life news story that inspired me to write The Forbidden Room. It's the 'saviour sibling' story - a family that have a second child (or in this case third) in order to extract stem cells to treat their existing sick child. In 'My Sister's Keeper, the child takes her family to court to gain the legal right to stop giving cells to keep her sister alive. There are other sub plots that keep things exciting, and the book has several unexpected twists. I enjoyed the book, although I haven't been inspired to read anything else by Jodi Picoult yet.
The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson
I know I keep going on about how I don't like reading non-fiction, but I am a huge Bill Bryson fan, and it was me who suggested that the book group do 'The Thunderbolt kid' Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in America in the fifties and sixties. It's a very funny book, and although, as a Brit, the American nostalgia sometimes left me cold, the remembering of childhood and family is fairly universal - we can all wince with embarrasment over the things parents do, or the things we did too when we were kids. I don't think this is my favourite Bill Bryson book ever, but I still really enjoyed it.
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Once again I was surprised by the spirit and passion in what for some reason I had thought of as a classic and therefore boring. I guess the classics are so called for a reason, and they wouldn't have stood the test of time if they didn't have something special. Wuthering heights is full of passion, as well as some thoroughly nasty people. My enjoyment of the book was helped by the book group having a visiting speaker from the Bronte society who gave a very interesting and informative talk (seriously - not boring at all - I had a great time.) I should revisit more classics.
My Name is Asher Lev - Chaim Potok
This is a fascinating and quite dark book about a boy growing up in a very strict Jewish Hassidic community. Asher's gift and passion is for art, something that is considered at best a waste of time, and at worst 'from the dark side' by his father and others in the community. It's about family relationships, and the expectations that parent have for their children. It's a book that drew me in and held my attention until I was holding my breath as Asher's parents finally attended one of his art exhibitions with inevitable disastrous results. Now I really want to get my hand on the sequel -'The Gift of Asher Lev' and see what happened next.
Digging to America - Anne Tyler
This is the first Anne Tyler book I've read. It's about two families in America, one true blue all-American family, the other first generation Iranian immigrants, who adopt Korean babies and meet up every year to celebrate the arrival of the children. There's a lot about acceptance and belonging and cultural tradition. I didn't hate the book, but I didn't really love it either. If I saw another Anne Tyler book going cheap somewhere, I would probably buy it and read it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to seek her out on the strength of Digging To America.
A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini
I loved this book! I found it a real page-turner from beginning to end. It was very harrowing at times, but not gratuitously, and I felt huge sympathy for the two main women protagonists - trapped in an abusive marriage in war torn Afghanistan, where women's rights just didn't exist. Plus I found the ending satisfying . (I loved The Kite Runner too). I think everyone in the group enjoyed the book, although one or two members found it a bit too harrowing, and might have given up on it for that reason if it wasn't our book group read.
The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan
I was really looking forward to reading The Joy Luck Club, because I had listened to The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan as an audiobook, and loved it. We did enjoy this book as a group (those of us who'd read it) but we also all found it quite hard to follow the stories of eight different women and remember who was who and who was related to whom. Still, there were lots of things to talk about with the mother-daughter issues raised, and the things that seemed to be unique to the Chinese culture, but that actually had parallels in our own culture and experience. On the whole we felt positive about the book, but felt the movie might be easier to follow. (I've since read Saving Fish From Drowing, which I LOVED!)
For One More Day - Mitch Albom
I find Mitch Albom's style a bit overly sentimental (although it still draws me in and makes me cry) but I did actually enjoy this book more than I thought I would, in spite of its sentimentality, and the author's obvious obsession with death and regret.
I liked the way the book forced the main character to understand his relationship with his daughter better after reliving his experiences with his mother.On the whole though, the group preferred his other books, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and Tuesdays With Morrie.
Two Doors Down - Annie McCartney
This book is set in Belfast and written by a local TV and radio personality and writer. It's a fairly light and fun book, and it was nice reading about places that are familiar to me. The style reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh books. I enjoyed the book - I felt quickly drawn into it, and felt for the characters. It was also an interesting look at the ideas of class and self worth. My only negative comment is that I thought the ending was almost too nice, although, saying that, sometimes a nice happy ending is a good thing - it makes it a feel-good book, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Creatures of The Earth - John McGahern
This book is a collection of short stories by an acclaimed Irish writer. I'm sorry to say that we found the book a little inaccessible. The first few stories were very dark and dour which put many of us off reading further (although those who did soldier on said the stories became more enjoyable as the book went on). Sometimes the writing was a bit opaque (unless its just that we're not intellectual enough) and we found we had to re-read a passage several times to understand what it meant. The stories (or the ones that I read at least) are generally snapshots, and are very rich and well described as far as they go, but I found myself wanting to know more - what becomes of the characters? What journey do they go on? What happens next? Just when I feel I'm getting to understand a character, the story ends and I'm left hanging. I find this hugely frustrating, and I wonder if I can be bothered to invest of myself to read the next snapshot or the next or the next. I guess it's just my personal taste - I don't really get short stories. I suppose it's a genre about appreciating the artistic merit of a story rather than getting drawn into a complex plot - like looking at paintings in an art gallery rather than watching a movie. Anyway, we're doing the new Rose Tremain book next time (the one that just won the Orange prize) so I'm looking forward to that - I love Rose Tremain (although not her short stories so much lol!)
The Road Home - Rose Tremain
This is the story of an Eastern European immigrant coming to England to earn money to send home to his daughter and ageing mother. As usual Rose Tremain writes with easy beauty, and The Road Home got a thumbs up from everyone who attended book group this month. We all liked it, especially the descriptions of food and cooking. We found the character of Lev very complex and sometimes hard to like, although we wondered how much of that was because of how our cultural ideas of the way people should behave differred from his. I personally still prefer The Colour by Rose Tremain, but The Road Home is definitely worth a read.
The Outcast - Sadie Jones
I missed book group on the night that this book was discussed, so I can only say what I thought of it. I found it very readable - it was one of those books that had me so gripped that I had to bring it about with me all day so I could snatch a few minutes reading whenever I could. I really felt for the main character, Lewis, and I loved the way that Kit felt about him, and I wanted to hit the people who treated him so badly, although I did want to tell him to control himself better at times too. I thought both Lewis and Kit's fathers were evil, but I did chat to one of the other book group ladies about it, and she thought Lewis's dad had a hard time too, and was trying his best in the circumstances. Hmmm, maybe.
The Behaviour of Moths - Poppy Adams
This book split the group. Two of us loved it, one hated it, two liked it alright without loving it and the rest hadn't got around to reading it! It certainly did generate a lot of discussion. Different readers got different things from the book, and the degree of unreliability of the narration was a topic of hot debate from the extreme of pretty much everything being a delusion of Ginny's, to the other extreme of almost everything being factual. It was a book that benefited from being discussed, at least I personally got more out of it after talking to the others in the group. We all thought it was quite creepy, and quite compelling, and most of us didn't see the ending coming and were suitable shocked.
The Land of Spices - Kate O'Brien
I read this book while in hospital with gallstones and I found it pretty hard to get into, and fairly regularly I had to stop and reread the last page or two because I didn't take any of it in. I don't know how much of that was because of being ill, or because of the book! The other girls in the group also found the book particularly slow and turgid at the start, but those who perservered and finished it were glad they did because it got better. It was interesting that the book was banned for a long time since it is very tame by today's standards. (We wondered what I could write that would get banned because we thought having a book banned would be cool!) We also thought it was interesting to read about the power struggles and rivalries that exist in any group of people who live together even if they're nuns!
The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
Everyone in the book group seemed to enjoy reading this book, although we took different things from it. I found the use of second person narrative interesting but a little forced and unnatural, although the others just thought it was a good way of telling the story. We all thought Changez's relationship with Erica was very strange, but until we discussed it together, we didn't really think too much about the allegory of Erica representing Am-Erica and how Changez had to deny his true self to be accepted by her. The ending lent itself to much discussion as well - we were of different opinions about who was planning to (or actually did) kill who at the end. I quite like a book with an ambiguous ending though, and I like discussing with other people who've read it. It reminds me of The Life of Pi in that way. It's interesting how two people can get totally different meanings from the same text.One of our members listened to a web chat with the author on BBC World Service Book Club and she said it was interesting how the Americans who were contibuting to the discussion said they lost simpathy with Changez after his reaction to 9/11. Perhaps it's easier for us to see both sides because we are not so close?
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Beloved is a classic American Book which won the Nobel prize for literature. It is part ghost story, part history and tells the story of Sethe, a female slave who after managing to escape from the cruel inhumane treatment she suffered at the hands of her owners, kills one of her own children and attempts to kill the others rather than allow them to be recaptured and to live the same kind of life that she lived. It's beautifully and cleverly written, and sometimes a little hard to follow, with a lot of mixing up of past and present happening, as well as the 'ghost' of sethe's dead baby having not only her own memories but the collective memories of all the black slaves who died on the slave ships between Africa and America (the staggering figure of 60 million according to the forward by Toni Morrison.)
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
This was one of the two book group reads for November (2009) and since I'd already read it, but it was quite a while ago, I re-read it the week before we met. I remembered that I liked it first time round, but I think I liked it even better second time. It weaves together the life story of Roseanne McNulty, a very old lady in an Irish mental hospital, and her psychiatrist, Dr Grene. They both have sad tales to tell, and while in the first reading, I was taken up with the suspense of the plot, the second time around I was entranced by the beauty of the writing, and how clevery it takes us to the ending. It's a clever exploration of an unreliable narrator, or just how memory and perspective changes history. Some people have complained that the ending is too contrived, but I thought it was believably enough - especially after my second read, and I thought the ending was lovely. Only four of us were able to make book group this month, and only three of us had finished the book, but I think we all really liked it.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Paul Torday
I read this book quite a while before we did it in book group, and since I'd got it out of the library first time around, I ordered it from Amazon to re-read before we met, but unfortunately it didn't come in time. One of our members, Gill, had just read it though, and she gave such a good description that we all felt like we'd just read it. It's about a simple scientist who is caught up in the ridiculous scheme of a very rich Arab who wants to fish for salmon in the Yemen. The story is told in a series of emails, diary entries, and interview transcripts, and (from what I can remember) I found it very funny - there's satire and spin and the perils of being used and abused by the government's spin doctors, and I loved the central character. When it finally arrives from Amazon, I will certainly be re-reading it.
Deaf Sentence - David Lodge
This was one of the two books we looked at in book group this time, and once again only four of our eight members were present (come back the rest of you - I miss you!). I was the only one of the four who found this book really funny. Although the others found some scenes hillarious, they felt a bit awkward by the writer poking fun of his own deafness. I myself suffer from the same form of deafness (although not as severely as the character in the book) so I could identify with his trying to guess what people were saying to him often with very funny results as I do the same thing all the time. We all agreed that the book was at least as sad as it was funny, with the decline of the main character's dad being the most poignant. (Some of us have lost parents recently, and others have elderly and unwell parents, so we could identify with that.) I enjoyed the read though, and would recomend it to others.
The Elegance of The Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
This book was originally written in French and translated into English and so felt a bit foreign. It is written from the point of view of two characters, one a depressed intelligent twelve year old girl, and the other a depressed intelligent fifty something woman who is the concierge in the apartment building where the girl lives. At first I really hated both the characters (I thought they were overly arrogant and self pitying) and I hated the style of writing (too many big words that I had to look up in the dictionary, and too much philosophical musing), but once I got into the book I began to change my mind until I loved both the characters and the book and the ending made me cry big time. Three of us had read this one, and I think we all felt pretty much the same about it - hard to get into, but well worth it in the end.
Home - Marilynne Robinson
One member of the book group absolutely loved this book and instantly bought its companion book 'Gilead' to read. The rest of us saw things about it that we liked, but found its atmosphere of disappointment and politeness and leaving things unsaid a bit much to handle. It is quite a depressing book, albeit beautifully written, about the black sheep of a very religious family returning home as a grown man when his father is old and near death. It's a tragic story of family members not fitting together and not realising how much they are loved. It had funny moments and touching moments, but it was mostly sad. It was a good book to discuss though, as only after discussing it did some bits click in my mind, which is, I think, a good thing in a book - it shows depth.
The Earth Hums in B Flat - Mari Strachan
I chose this book, so I felt quite responsible and was probably overly critical when I first started reading it which meant it took me a while to get into it. (Needn't have worried since only myself and one other member of the group actually read it!) Once I did get into it I found it enjoyable. It is many things - a murder mystery, a family drama, a coming of age story, a fable, a piece of historic fiction etc. Set in a small welsh village in the 1950s and told in the first person by Gwennie, the youngest daughter in a family fraught with secrets and scandal. Gwennie innocently investigates a missing man in the village, not knowing what kind of hornet's nest her investigation will stir up.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
We did this book at the same time as The Earth Hums in B Flat, although more of us had read this one! (I had read it quite a long time age, so I couldn't remember that much about it.) We all loved it. I had been annoyed by the overly 'posh' voice, although that hadn't bothered the rest of the group. We were all fascinated by the facts about life in Guernsey during the occupation, which none of us knew anything about, and we thought the human stories were funny and sad, and the style of the book was charming. We thought it was sad that the (American) writer had died before the book was published (which is why there are two named writers - Annie Barrows is Mary Ann Shaffer's relative (niece I think) who completed the editing stages after her aunt's death.)
Breathing in Colour - Clare Jay
The group was fairly divided on this one - some of us liked the interesting descriptive imagery used by the character with synesthesia while one or two found it a bit annoying. The ladies in the group who had travelled in India were disappointed that the feel of being in India didn't come out more and we universally didn't buy the love interest and thought that it jarred with the main plot and would have been best left out. Saying that, we liked the structure of alternating narrative between the mother in the present and the daughter re-living the past until the two narratives collided. The revealing of the tragic event in the family's past was handled well and the ending, while almost too neat was satisfactory.
Love and Summer - William Trevor
This was an optional second book along with Breathing in Colour, and was only read by a couple of us (I read it, but then I've read every book so far except for the Robbie Williams one which I just couldn't bring myself to finish). We didn't discuss it much, except to say that it was sort of sweet and slow and evoked the feeling of a sleepy Irish town where nothing much happened and everyone knew everyone else's business. It felt like an old classic even though it was published recently. The Author is quite old though, and his writing evokes a bygone era.
Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier
Everybody loved this book. We printed out book group questions off the internet, which helped with our discussions. Lots of topics were raised about women's rights, and class issues and the development of science and the reaction from the church in the nineteenth century (when the book is set). We found it very readable, and kind of tragic, and the women characters were likeable if flawed.
Tresspass - Rose Tremain
This was the optional second book along with Remarkably creatures, and wasn't discussed as much. Those of us who'd read it found it a bit disturbing. There was some disagreement about the relationship between the two gay women - whether it broke down because of what happened, or if it was unhealthy to begin with. We found the ending satisfying if a little macabre.
The L-Shaped Room - Lynne Reid Banks
Many of us, myself included had read this book before - in my case, just a few years ago, but some of the ladies read it as teenagers. We all found that we had fond memories of the book, and that we enjoyed reading it again even more than we remembered enjoying it in the past. The character of the unmarried mother was believable and likable (I did get a bit annoyed at her and Toby in the middle when everyone kept going off in huffs - but then I guess in real life people do that, so I'll let them off). We were all struck by the different attitudes and prejudices that were considered normal in those days (the book was written in the 1950s when political correctness hadn't been invented), and the terribly hard time unmarried mothers were given by everyone around them (how times have changed!). I know I have the two sequels to the book somewhere - I must dig them out and read them too.
Jayber Crow - Wendell Berry
There was some confusion over whether or not we were discussing this book or just talking about books we'd read over Christmas so I didn't read it (I thought we weren't discussing it) and was horrified to find out that we were (I've never not started reading the book before - and I've finished them all by book group night - except the awful Robbie Williams one). Anyway, four ladies had started the book, and three of them had finished it. The three who'd finished it loved it. It's the life story of a traditional barber in a sleepy American town and his thoughts on the people who come into his shop and the way the world is changing around him. Those who finished the book said they loved its rich slow pace (although the lady who didn't finish said it was the slooooooowwww pace that put her off). The writer is also a poet, and the fans of the book said the lyrical writing was one of the things they liked about it. I will definitely get around to reading it myself sometime. I wonder if I'll love the slow pace or hate it. Hmmm.
The White Woman on The Green Bicycle - Monique Roffey
(I missed book group because I was sick, which is a real pity, because I would have liked to have discussed the book). I can only talk about my impressions of the book, except that the emails going around the group earlier in the month showed that many of the members were put off by the very violent beginning of the book. where a young local boy is being badly beaten by corrupt policemen in Trinidad's Port of Spain. The main plot of the book is about a white couple who came to Trinidad in 1956, supposedly only to stay for three years, but never left. The first half of the book is recent, with the couple in their seventies and then the second half tells the beginning of their story from when they first arrived as young newlyweds. The wife always yearned to go back to England or France (she was French, but her husband was English) and we wonder why she never did until we kind of find out near the end. It was an interesting look at marriage and politics and how ideals are challenged by circumstances and how power almost always corrupts. I would have liked some little return to the present at the end, maybe even just an epilogue, because it felt like the story ended in the middle rather than at the end which just felt a bit wrong. On the whole I enjoyed reading it though.
Blood and Sand - Frank Gardner
This was one of two books for this month (the other being, The Life of Pi). A couple of us said we generally really don't like biographies, but this one won us over. We found it fascinating reading about things we'd heard on the news but from a more personal angle, and it made it quite exciting seeing Frank Gardner now, having read all about him. We were all moved by his story, and admired him very much as a hard working journalist, although a couple of us thought that men (or women) who chose dangerous jobs or hobbies don't consider their spouses and children as much as they should because they're driven by what they do too much.
The Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Most of us who read this book were more taken up with the story than with the allegory and message the writer was trying to get across about the nature of faith and stories in religion. We loved the information about animals and zoos and the excitement of the journey the character went on. We agreed that it was possible that the tiger story was made up to cover the much less romantic truth of murder and cannibalism which was Pi's alternative story, although I think I was probably the only one who felt outraged at the author for messing with our minds in this way.
The Reader - Bernhard Schlink
We were not quite sure what to make of this book. Several of us found the beginning quite disturbing - the erotic scenes between Hanna, an older woman and Michael, a fifteen year old boy bordered on abuse and were difficult reading. Several of us also found the style of writing quite strange - sort of repressed, but we wondered if it was just a cultural difference as the book was written in German and translated. The feelings of the post war generation of German young people towards their parents generation and the lack of forgiveness towards them was evident in the book, and we discussed how that was similar to the legacy of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland and how the current young people are affected by what things were like in their parents day. Hanna, one of the main characters had been a guard in a Nazi concentration camp for Jews and in the second half of the book is on trial for war crimes. Throughout the book she guards the secret of her illiteracy, and it seems she would go to great lengths - even being wrongly convicted and going to prison rather than admitting that she can't read. We wondered if it was shame or just the fact that she'd carried the secret for so long, and it had shaped her life so much that keeping it seemed like the most important thing for her. One of the group hadn't quite finished the book, so we didn't discuss the end much except to say that we found it moving and although the book was a strange and difficult read, it was still a worthy one, and a good one for a book group, as it provoked a lot of thoughtful discussion.
Room - Emma Donoghue
Both this book, and the other one we read this session (When God Was a Rabbit) were books I'd read before, but re-read for book group. Interestingly, this one I enjoyed less second time around, whereas the other I enjoyed more. It's taken me ages to get around to writing these up, so apologies to the other ladies if I forget some stuff. A few of the ladies had been reluctant to read this book because they thought it would be too disturbing, but were glad when they did that the telling of the mother's abduction and imprisonment through the eyes of her small son made the story while still harrowing, at least not graphic and gratuitous. There was some discussion over the morals of writers exploiting human tragedy (especially in the light of a few real cases of women imprisoned and made to bear children that have been in the news lately) for the sake of selling books. As a writer myself though, I feel that most books exploit the bad things (and the good things) that happen to real people to take the reader on emotional journeys, and you could argue that the fact that these things really do happen, makes them fair game for fiction.(Think of the number of books about murder, or bereavement through cancer.) We generally agreed that the first part of the book (before the big escape) was more well written than the post escape part, and a few members found the escape a bit unbelievable and contrived (although I kind of think that something as crazy as that could just work in real life, and I was very anxious and caught up in the tension of it all as I read it).
When God Was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman
There was some fierce debate over this book. Some of us loved it, and others (one lady in particular) really didn't like it. The book is a memoir of sorts, looking back over the main character's childhood and then jumping forward through time to meet up with her again as an adult. The book uses major historical events as signposts to hang the story around - those in favour of the book liked this, and thought it was natural to remember our pasts in terms of what was going on in the world at the time, the other view given was that this was cliched and over done. There are elements in the book that are a little farcical (and sometimes hysterically funny) and it nudges the realms of magical realism once or twice (maybe that's why I liked it so much). One criticism raised was that the main character's childhood best friend (I forget names as soon as I've finished reading a book - sorry) who lifted her life and was a breath of fresh air, disappeared quite early in the book, and we would have liked to have seen more or her. Saying that, there was a rich cast of other incidental characters and the book never dragged (for me at least). I'm looking forward to reading it again.
Mapp and Lucia - E. F. Benson
I have to apologise, as it's now the 1st Feb, and we've got book group tonight, and I haven't written up the two books from last time, back in November! I can hardly remember now what was said, we've had a film night since then (saw Tamara Drew - very funny!). I wrote up my opinion of the book after I read it, so you could swing over to the 'I just read' page to read that if you want. I remember that most people thought the book was okay, but not great.
In the Country of Men - Hisham Matar
Again, (see previous post) I apologise for not writing this up when I could still remember what people said about it ( I will do better after tonight, I promise!). Do read my thoughts in the 'I just read' section. I think, if memory serves, that the rest of the group kind of felt the same way as I did about it.
Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks
As promised, I am being much better behaved, and writing up the book groups review of this book the very next day after book group (while I still remember what people said!) We had a lovely night - thank you to our newest member, Jo for her lovely hospitality and her lovely cats and dog!
More than half of us had finished the book (a sign of how good it was!) and everyone really liked it. We universally appreciated the beautiful language, and there was some debate over the use of unfamiliar words (like sennight for one week) and while it occasionally made a sentence hard to instantly understand, we on the whole liked the authenticity of it. We were struck by the fragility of life in the 17 hundreds in America (or anywhere, probably) and the frustrating limitations the female narrator had to put up with. There was much hilarity over a debate about whether or not two of the characters consummated their relationship, with people frantically trying to find passages to prove it one way or another, until one member when reading out a passage, paraphrased it to end with... 'and then they did it in the Library!' We fell about laughing. (Some of the confusion was over a passage where the character anxiously awaited her 'courses', by which she meant menstruation, because she hoped she wasn't pregnant (proving they 'did it') but one of our members miss-understood the phrase, and thought she was going to start studying! - more laughter!) Anyone who thinks books groups are too stuffy should come to ours and have a laugh.
Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman
Like a few of our book group books of late, this was narrated by a child telling a traumatic story in a naive way. Based on the real life story of Damiloa Taylor, a young African boy, Harri, moved to London with his mum and sister and gets caught up with the gangs and knife violence which seemed like an exciting game to him. He's a good boy, with a noble heart and the reader's heart bleeds for him thrown into the situation that he is. He adopts a local pigeon, and passages of the narrations are from the pigeon's point of view as a kind of guardian angel to Harri. We all liked the book, which had an easy reading style, if not easy reading subject matter. We liked the mix of African and inner city London slang, and Harri's imaginative way of seeing the world was clever but still believable.
Dona Nicanora's Hat Shop - Kirstan Hawkins
Not that many members had read this one, but those who had enjoyed it.. It's a light, fun, fairly easy read with quite a feel good ethos and some funny moments. Set in a tiny village in South America, cut of by not having phone service, or internet or even a reliable road, who try to get up to date and attract tourists by planning to open a cyber cafe. There's romance and just enough magical realism to feel South American without getting too strange for people who don't like that kind of thing.
Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese
Those of us who had read this book were unanimous in thinking it was fabulous! (And those who hadn't were convinced enough to want to borrow our copies!) It's quite a big book, which was off-putting for some, but the writing is so good that we were gripped once we bit the bullet and started to read. It's set in hospitals in Africa and America and all of us liked the medical detail (especially our resident GP, Maureen). Rather than discuss the books themes and metaphors etc, we ended up just reading out our favourite passages - the scene with Hema confronting the pilot after her traumatic flight had us all in stitches! It was also our annual Pimms night (the outdoor element once again rained off, but ah well) so that might explain the lack of sensible conversation - or it could be just the way we always are! Personally, I think it was my favourite of the book group reads we've read so far.
Why by Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson
It was a rare and happy event that everyone at book group had read the book! Saying that, we didn't talk about it that much - those who had just caught up with last months book, Cutting For Stone, wanted to talk about how great it was, but we did all agree that the Jeanette Winterson book was well worth a read. I was the only one who felt a bit miffed by Ms Winterson dissing her northern upbringing (definitely due to the chip on my shoulder then) and we were all impressed with her honesty in describing herself 'warts and all' and the journey she went through with literature as her escape from a terrible childhood. So inspired was our group leader that she suggested we tackled one of the iconic tomes of feminist literature next, but she was shouted down with cries of 'no!' and 'catch yourself on!' and we decided instead to do two books for next time, Jo Nesbo's Headhunters, and Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.
Headhunters - Jo Nesbo
(I'm very late writing up the two books we did in November (it's now January) so apologies if I misrepresent anyone's opinions!) About half of the members of book group read this book, and those of us who did mostly thought it was okay, but not really our cup of tea (one person loved it). Some of us found it a little too gory and graphic) especially the scene where the main character hid in the sludge under the outside toilet. I personally was very irritated by the main character's refusal to see what I thought was blatantly obvious, although to be fair, I didn't see all the twists and turns coming.
State of Wonder - Ann Pattchett
(Again, due to the tardiness of my write up, I may not remember everything we talked about regarding this book). State of Wonder was more well liked, and generated more discussion than Headhunters. We had fun finding allegories and references to Milton's Paradise Lost and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The book actually brought up lots of interesting talking points, such as the ripple effect of childhood traumas on how adults live and interact and form relationships. We loved the various interesting characters and the colourful descriptions of the Jungle setting. The book raised morality issues based around artificially prolonging fertility and the business and money-making aims of pharmaceutical companies rather than altruism. We thought the idea of licking trees was quite comical, and we liked the open ended conclusion of the book which raised several different opinions of 'what happened next'.
The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen
Several members of the group had started this book and given up, finding the characters too dysfunctional, and the story too depressing. Those of us who had finished the book, managed to bring them round a bit by saying most if not all of the characters in this extended family drama reach some kind of redemption (or correction) by the end of the book, and those who hadn't read agreed to go back to it and try again. We all agreed that the characters were somewhat caricatured over-the-top versions of typical family 'black-sheep', although flashes of people we knew or circumstances we'd lived through hit home. One reader was put off by having seen the book described as a dark comedy, although we agreed there were some darkly comic moments. Not a bad book, but not one of our favourites.
The Kashmir Shawl - Rosie Thomas
For my personal view of this book, see what I've written in the 'I just read...' section of this website. It seems that I was a lone voice in dissing this book - the rest of the group all seemed to love (or at least like) it. Everybody read it to the end, (which is our group is saying something!) and commented on the descriptions of Kashmir really bringing the book to life for them, and how much they liked the river boats and the society characters, so much so that one member used google earth to look and see what the area looks like now. I think we all preferred the parts of the story which were based in the past and agreed that the contemporary character who travelled to Kashmir to find out about her ancestor was a bit thin and her parts of the story were somewhat contrived. Still, on the whole it went down well with our group.
The Moment - Douglas Kennedy
Once again I've left the writing up of my book group read until months after the event, so I'm struggling to remember what everyone thought of it. I think not many of us had finished reading it, and those who had, had mixed feelings. We liked the bits in Germany best, although one member was a bit annoyed at the young couple's constant need to bed each other all day long! There were twists and turns which we didn't see coming, which was nice, and we liked the historic look at east Germany and communism.
An Honourable Man - Gillian Slovo
We had a lovely supper cooked for us by one of our member's daughter, and a visit from an old friend who used to attend more regularly but moved away, so between one thing and another, we didn't much talk about the book! Only three members had finished it, and the general consensus was that it was okay - not the worst book we'd read, but not great either, with fairly two-dimensional characters, and the historical war setting didn't really excite us as a group of middle aged women!