My friend Sheila started a book group several years ago and I’ve been going since the beginning. Book group is one of my favourite places on earth for lots of reasons. The biggest reason is probably the great group of women who attend – funnier friendlier people you won’t find anywhere, and the craic is something else. Another reason is the range of new books and writers that the group has introduced me to. Here are the books we’ve studied so far – I’ll update this page after each new book.
Exactly What You Mean – Ben Hinshaw
(This is a cut and paste of my review from the ‘I just read’ section of my website)
Funnily enough, like the previous book group read (Exactly What You Mean by Ben Hinshaw), this is a novel which is really a series of connected short stories. Whereas I hated the previous book, and used the fact that it was really short stories as the basis of my rant about it, I actually really enjoyed reading this book.
I have looked at other people’s reviews of this book on Goodreads, and it’s quite divided, with many people not liking how the book follows 12 characters, sequentially, most of them Black British women with various ‘issues’ and, they feel only skims the surface of each character before moving on. I can see where they are coming from, and usually this would bother me too, but, I don’t know, I just found the reading of this book to be a thoroughly enjoyable immersive experience.
The style of writing is also divisive, without much punctuation or capitalisation which some people hated and others (me included) found it gave the storytelling a presence and truth and verisimilitude (I had to look that word up because I was reaching for something that meant what it means!!) like someone is telling you the story from their life with passion without having to pause to conform to grammatical rules.
I can’t explain why I was so captivated by this book – I’m not a black British woman (I’m a white Irish woman (or almost Irish)) but I felt kinship and empathy with the characters.
The other girls in the book group all enjoyed it too.
Exactly What You Mean wasn’t universally loved by the book group members. I personally really didn’t like it at all, and the others were at best lukewarm, although a couple did say that the book grew on them. It is a ‘novel’ – at least it says it is a novel where each chapter follows different characters in different points of time who are all loosely connected to the island of Guernsey, but it is really a collection of short stories pretending to be a novel. This threw some of us, because of the disjoint between chapters if you are expecting a novel where things make sense as a whole. I found the stories to be quite bleak and depressing. Our host, Sheila had suggested the book after she had seen it praised on the BBC between the covers podcast, and we watched the podcast together. Ben Hinshaw talked about the book and actually came across really well, and perhaps if I’d seen his interview before reading I might have enjoyed it more (or maybe not!).
Once There Were Wolves – Charlotte McConaghy
We had a really good book group evening discussing this book, in fact we talked about the book, and issues raised by the book more than we’ve talked about any book for years!
Most of us had finished the book (again something of a rarity!) and we all seemed to feel mostly positive about it (I personally loved it!). The story follows Inte, who suffers from mirror image synesthesia and is one of two identical twins while she is in Scotland heading a team re-introducing wild wolves to the ecosystem.
The books seems to span several genres, it’s a murder mystery, a family thriller, a book about nature and ecology and a study on relationships and human behaviour. We talked about all these things, including how our actions and feelings are molded both by our genetics and our experiences, we talked about the shocking prevalence of domestic abuse and child abuse in the world and if this makes us more or less like wild animals. We even found out about a wolf sanctuary in Ireland and are planning a book group trip there!
The story jumps about a bit in time and location, which at least one of us found sometimes a bit confusing, and we wondered if the story was too unbelievable, although conceded that sometimes real life is pretty unbelievable and the story could have happened.
The writing was beautiful though, and I would definitely recommend this book to other book groups.
Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus
As usual, I’m late writing this up, so I’m struggling to remember what was said about the book. I think on the whole we all enjoyed the read but were not so blown away as we have been with other books. The misogyny raised some discussion, as well as our own experiences as women working in the sciences and we liked the characters of the dog and the nice neighbour. We did find a link to some book group questions, but only really looked at one of them before being sidetracked (I love my book group – it’s nice having the common bond of shared reading without being all uptight about having to find all the hidden meanings and allegories).
The Mermaid of Black Conch Bay – Monique Roffey
Sheila had just completed a course at Queen’s University on Women Writers, which covered this book so she was able to share some nuggets of inspiration about the many layers of meaning to this magical realism fable. Set on a Caribbean Island, the story follows a local fisherman and an ancient mermaid who liked to listen to him singing on his boat. When she is caught by American tourists and strung up on the harbour pier like a prize fish, he rescues her and hides her in his house. The book covers all kinds of issues like colonialism and racism and classism as well as the harmful ways women can be treated by men and by other women. We liked the beautiful writing, told from different perspectives and different points in time which added complexity and interest and we found the story thoughtful, beautiful and sad.
Persuasion – Jane Austen
We decided to go for a classic this time and opted for Jane Austen’s Persuasion and to honest, I found it quite a slog to get through. I know that Jane Austen was quite radically feminist for her era, and yet the book does seem to be all about who is marrying whom, which I found a bit tedious. I’m aware that at the time, women’s lives were difficult whether they were married or not, and yet the social norm was definitely towards marriage as the fulfilment of a woman’s role and therefor to be unmarried was to be unfulfilled and a failure.
I did quite like how she pointed a finger at the snobbish classist ways of society in that era and showed their absurdity.
As a group, we discussed how we’re drawn to watching period dramas and the likes of Downton Abbey and Gentleman Jack, even though we know that they were based on a very unequal society (not that society is equal now, but at least we pretend that everyone is equally deserving of respect and human rights).
56 Days -Catherine Ryan Howard
I listened to this one on Audiobook, and actually really enjoyed it (I liked the narrator’s Irish accent) but the other book group members read it and mostly found it a bit lightweight and not that enthralling. It’s set in Dublin just before and during the first big Covid lockdown, and we all found it interesting to re-live those early days which already are fading in our memory as all this global pandemic business becomes more normal and everyday to us. I enjoyed the mystery as a young couple are thrown together more quickly than is normal due to lockdown and as the story unfolds we learn secrets about them both, and when one of them is murdered it was fun trying to guess exactly what happened. I think we all guessed bits of it, but not all of the reveals.
Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart
We found this book to be readable but distressing in its bleakness. Set in the tenements of Glasgow and based on the authors own early experiences, we follow Shuggie who has to struggle with not fitting in due to being gay and sensitive, while often missing school because he is the carer of his alcoholic mother. Shuggy has to manage to squirrel away some of his mother’s benefit money to buy food and other essentials for them both before she spends it all on drink, and often has to deal with her being ill and incapacitated . It’s a coming of age story, and the ending is kind of optimistic, and yet it is so harrowing to see the way many people are forced to live, trapped in impoverished societies
Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
This book split the book group – of those of us who had read it, myself and one other loved it, and the one or two others who had read it really didn’t like it at all, finding it too strange and even tedious! The book is certainly strange – based on the convoluted designs of the Italian architect and artist that shares its name and that of its main protagonist, the book twists in on itself leaving the reader to constantly question what is real and what is only imagined. Steeped in magical realism and psychology I found it unsettling and yet beautiful and contemplative. We are told the story via the diaries of Piranesi who seems to be living in an otherworldly place full of statues, birds and only one other person. He has forgotten what has gone before and we with him try to reason it out with alarming results.
Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano
(This review has some minor spoilers, so read on at your own risk….)
Only three of us had read this book. It seems that this whole business of Covid and lockdown effects people in different ways, for me, I’m reading more than ever, but I know that it’s quite common for the feeling of unsettledness to make many people not able to concentrate on reading as much as they normally would, and for that reason some of the members of the group had not managed it. Those of us who had read it were on the whole really positive. It was certainly a compelling read and the character of Edward was likeable. We thought it was interesting that the story of Edward being the sole survivor of a plane crash was based on a true story. One member thought Shay’s character was a little unbelievable (that’s Edwards new next door neighbour and friend) but another thought her quirkiness was necessary to help break through Edward’s defences. We talked about how family and friends of victims can place an unrealistic burden and almost mythical status on survivors, and we liked how the mystic that Edward went to see told him that he wasn’t special, but that it was just dumb luck that he survived when others didn’t and how that lifted some of his burden. We liked the coming of age aspect of the story as well, and how Edward met up with his deceased sibling’s girlfriend when he was the age his brother had been when he died. One member found the reading painful as it made her think of her own bereavements, but we acknowledged that fiction evokes feelings especially when it touches on things the reader has experienced.
Home Going – Yaa Gyasi
The book follows seven generations starting with two Ghanaian sisters whose lives took them on very different paths as one was taken as the wife of a British slave trader, and the other was taken as a slave and sold to America. There is a family tree in the front of the book which those of us who had a physical copy found very helpful, but since I read it on kindle it was too footery for me to keep flipping back and checking it. That said, it was not too hard to follow the structure where chapters tell the story of each generation alternating between the two families. Of course there was shocking instances of people’s cruelty to other people, but there was also glimpses of light and strength of human character, and although the book was something like a series of short stories as the main character changed each chapter, the thread of the family and how we are all products of our family histories lived through the plot. I found it very readable and well written and well worth reading. Those of us who had read it all enjoyed it and there was a fair bit of discussion about things like the themes of fire and water and our favourite characters (Willie was popular). Some of the girls had seen the BBC programme with Samuel L. Jackson, that visited some of the places in the book when looking at the history of the slave trade which helped to bring the book to live even more for them.
American Dirt – Jeanine Cummings
Most of us read this book, which for us is quite an achievement! I wrote a somewhat scathing review of it in my ‘I just read’ section of the website, which I showed to the other members before we discussed it together. (I think this may have coloured our discussion!). The others found the book fairly readable, (although one member did give up in the middle because she got bored) and we all found it enlightening and shocking in its portrayal of the suffering of some people in Mexico and central American countries under the violence caused by the drug cartels and the terrible lengths they are forced to go to to escape to ‘el norte’ only to be sent back, sometimes years later often splitting families. Most of us preferred the beginning of the book, with it’s shocking opening , and creeping threat with the main character’s relationship with the mysterious customer in her bookshop, but once she and her son took to the road, it just felt like a bog standard ‘they’ll just make it by the skin of their teeth’ adventure romp.
The Shell Collector – Anthony Doerr
Unfortunately, I wasn’t at book group the night this book was discussed,. My son’s Spanish girlfriend, Ana, had just flown in from Spain and was self-isolating with us, as that is the rule at the moment during these covid times, and although other members of the household don’t need to quarantine, I thought it was better to be cautious and not attend. I think from the chat on our WhatsApp group, that the girls who had read the book thought that the writing was beautiful, but the content of the stories was a bit quare. (If you’re not ‘from here’ then ‘quare’ is Irish for strange! (or sometimes ‘very’ depending on the context!!))
LIttle Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
We were finally allowed to meet together in the flesh (albeit socially distanced) and as always the company, catching up and the refreshments were at least as important as discussing the book. That said, most of us had read the book, and found it quite a ‘page turner’. There was a fair bit of discussion about issues raised by the book such as the nature of motherhood, and the ethics surrounding surrogacy, adoption and the rights of birth parents over adopted/surrogate parents, as well as racism and classism.
Where The Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
Because of the Coronavirus, this was our first ever virtual book group via Zoom Conference! A fair bit of time was devoted to trying to get everyone able to see and hear everyone else, and of course talking about the very strange and disturbing times we find ourselves in. That aside, we did talk about the book, and everyone had either read it, or almost finished reading it (quite the feat for us!) and everybody was very positive about the read. We loved the writing style, feeling that the descriptions were so evocative that we could imagine Kya’s shack and her collections as if we could see them, as well as getting a good feel for the American swamplands community even though it is so far from our own experience. One or two wondered if it was stretching credulity too much that a seven year old girl could be left to fend for herself without the authorities stepping in, although we acknowledged that it’s set a bit in the past and that the attitude to the ‘swamp people’ from the authorities was just to leave them alone to get on with their business. We were annoyed at Tate for leaving her for so long and shocked by the reveal at the end, although we could understand why things happened as they did.
A History of Loneliness – John Boyne
Again, I am really late writing this up, so I am just going to copy and paste the review I already wrote in my ‘books I read in the last 10 years’ page.
I have read a few John Boyne books before, and I have to say this one is maybe my least favourite. It’s the story of a sweet well meaning man who was a catholic priest all his life. What annoyed me was how he seemed unable to see the abuse of children which to me seemed to be going on in a glaringly obvious fashion all around him. I will admit, though, that after discussing the book with the others in my book group, I came around to it a bit more, as we talked about how people can not see things that with hindsight, or with our modern scepticism of the catholic church seem obvious. Curiously, I liked the parts of the story which looked back on the protagonists time as a young priest in the Vatican whereas the some of the others in the group really disliked those parts!
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
This is the review I wrote in the ‘Books I read in the last 10 years’ Page of my website:
In Moscow in 1922 a Russian count is sentenced to life imprisonment in the Metropol hotel. The story follows many years of his life in the hotel and is told with charm, wit, whimsy and elegance. The feel of the book reminds me of the lovely film The Grand Budapest Hotel. There are lots of references to Russian literature and history, expressed with great affection by the count who loves his country in spite of how it has treated him, and also in spite of the terrible things that happen to some of the people he loves. The storytelling is very clever, with things referenced early in the story which become much more significant with hindsight and slot together beautifully (like in the two great books, ‘Holes’ and ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’). I found myself deeply moved by things that happened toward the end of the story and I think it is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I’m interested to discuss it with my book group buddies!
And this is after (quite a bit after…oops) discussing it at book group:
This book was very well received by the book group (I’m writing this up so shamefully late, that there have been two book groups since this book, and so most of us have now actually finished it!). I think we all found the book very moving, as well as an interesting slice of russian history and a different perspective on the idea of the bourgeois or even aristocracy as being always the bad guys, as the ‘gentleman’ of the title, while born into wealth accepted his new diminished circumstances with such grace and humility and was such a sympathetic character, that one couldn’t help but warm to him.
Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale
This was a little bit similar to a book we did previously (The Heart’s Invisible Furies) in that it’s a coming of age story from the perspective of an older gay man looking back over his youth. The protagonist is a keen cellist and the group was somewhat divided over all the detail about cello stuff – I like when fiction books give you detailed information about random stuff like cello playing, but some members thought they learned more than they ever wanted to know about cello fingering. Also, the gay sex was a times a little too graphic for some. On the whole, thought, the book was well received and a couple of us were inspired to buy and read more books by the author.
The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan
This book somewhat divided opinion at book group. It’s set in Ireland during the crash that followed the Celtic Tiger boom and it’s unique feature is that each of it’s chapters is narrated by a different character – I think 21 or 22 in total. Most of us liked how the different points of view filled in gaps in each other’s tellings, and how we got different voices and different perspectives, even if it was a little confusing sometimes working out the relationships between the characters. One member really didn’t like the almost staccatto style of writing where words are fired at you rather than unfolding gently, whereas a couple of us really liked the style – I thought it was unusual and poetic. I liked the authentic Irish voices, but I (and others in the group) found it a little depressing that so many of the characters where so emotionally damaged and angry at the world. We also thought the plot thread about the kidnapped child was a little unnecessary – it didn’t really add to the main plot and wasn’t well developed. Overall though, I think we all enjoyed reading the book.
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
We decided to do another classic, since they’re usually pretty good (!) Those of us who had finished the book all mostly enjoyed it, and it sparked quite a bit of discussion: about the life of Daphne Du Maurier, as well as things like the English class system, and how the unnamed wife had little choice in life and that perhaps explaines why she accepted the marriage proposal from the grumpy much older man as it meant whe would have a home and financial security. We found that the book got more exciting towards the end and we were not all sure whether we felt sypathetic towards the husband of not. Fun twists and turns. Also some discussion about the importance of names in the book, and the significance of the young wife’s name never being revealed.
American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
This novel is based on the life of Laura Bush. Again, only about half the group had finished the book (it is very long), and those that had had mixed reactions to it. On the whole we liked it, and there was quite a bit of discussion about how true to life it was, and about the American class system and the character of presidents (!). A couple of us thought at least the first half of the book was a bit too chic lit -y.
Bel Canto – Ann Pratchett
I think only two of us had finished reading this book, but we loved it! It is set in an unnamed South American country, at a birthday party for an esteemed Japanese businessman with a guest famous Soprano performing. The party is interrupted by rebel forces whose aim was to kidnap the president (who had not attended the event on the last minute). Most of the book covers the siege which follow – we get to know the characters of both the captives and the rebels, love and friendship blossoms, but the inevitability of the tragic ending becomes more and more clear as time passes. I had mixed feelings about the little epilogue bit at the end, but we didn’t want to discuss it too much at book group so as not to spoil the ending for the ones still reading.
The Hearts Invisible Furies – John Boyne
This book was well liked by the book group. It’s the life story of an older Irish gay man, told in flashbacks, as well as the story of his mother who suffered persecution from the church and her family for being a single mum. One of my personal favourite things about the book was the delicious dark humour that runs through it, and I was a little surprised that some of the group didn’t pick up on that. The thing that niggled me was that some of the coincidences that drive the plot just seemed too contrived – again the other girls didn’t really feel that. It’s complicated, because to tell a good story, the plot does need to be contrived, but the reader shouldn’t see that they’re being manipulated (a tricky thing to achieve!). On the whole though, we liked the characters, and felt with them for the injustices they had to put up with for being gay or unmarried and pregnant, and found the book compelling, poignant and enjoyable.
The Good People – Hannah Kent
Normally in our bookgroup, the actual book is lucky to get five minutes chat about it, but this one set a record for almost filling the whole evening! It’s a book that raises lots of points. Set in rural Ireland in the 1820s, the main character is widowed at the beginning of the book and is the sole carer of her disabled grandson. The plot of the book revolves around her firm belief that the child is in fact a changeling (swapped for a fairy child) and the lengths she goes to in order to try and get the real child back from the fairies. Many of us were familiar with the superstitious practices in the book from either themselves or their families having grown up in rural Ireland (or in my case from having read lots of magical realism type books), and we could see how very poor people with pagan roots still struggling to integrate with the teachings of the church would be afraid of angering the fairy folk. Neither the priest nor the doctor were much use to the old lady, and the ‘wise woman’ had a good track record with herbal cures and midwifery, so it was not surprising she was more influenced by her. The book was written by an Australian, and most of us were impressed by the ‘Irish’ voices of the characters (although one of the group found them a bit forced and artificial). The book ends with a court case, and that also invoked lots of chat with us discussing what we thought the appropriate verdicts/punishments should have been.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
I think everyone in book group (who’d finished the book) really enjoyed this one. Like me, the girls grew to love Eleanor, and also the other characters. Its a book about a journey (not a physical journey) that Eleanor (and the reader) goes one starting with an almost accidental act of kindness. As Eleanor confronts her past and learns that relationships don’t have to be hurtful, we learn more about her and why she is the way she is. Eleanor is very quirky, straightforward, tactless and so closed in (at least at the beginning of the book) that several of us assumed she was autistic. One of the girls wondered about the significance of the name ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ which none of us knew, but I’ve since seen someone on the Rick O’Shea facebook bookgroup point out a poem signed with the name, so I guess that’s where it came from.
The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
I read this book whilst I was in Cork, hearing the accents and seeing the places, so it had a special resonance for me. The other book group ladies had a mixed reaction to it. I think most agreed with me that they found the beginning a little confusing (I didn’t realise for a while that the opening scene is talking about a metaphorical death of a child as the boy becomes a man, and I thought there really was a dead child). I think we all enjoyed the moments of dark humour, but we found it a little difficult to relate to lives that were so catastrophic and at times violent. It’s a book about a terrible accident that has spiralling bad effects for several different people. The book offered lots of things to talk about, as the plot is fairly multilayered and complex, with lots of characters, so a worthy book group read if not everyone’s cup of tea (and it’s very sweary!).
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
I think everyone liked this book, and everyone had at least started reading it (which for our book group is pretty good!). One of the girls had been to Amsterdam and seen the miniature house that inspired the writer to come up with this historical fiction story. The book is about an arranged marriage in the Netherlands in 17th Century. The young bride has to find her place in an (at first at least) unwelcoming household with secrets and mysteries. Although homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death, we thought that the Netherlands were pretty progressive in terms of women’s rights. There was a magical realism element to the book, which (I loved, of course) we mostly liked, although we felt that this strand of the story was left hanging a bit and would have liked more closure or at least concrete information about ‘the miniaturist’ of the title.
People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks
I think we all really enjoyed this one – the ‘book’ of the title is an ancient Jewish religious book which is being examined by a modern Australian expert. She finds tiny fragments trapped between pages, or details about the paint pigments etc which help her to work out the history of the book, and we get a vignette of the stories behind each clue which offer an insight into the ‘people’ of the book – both the craftspeople, the book’s owners, and the people who kept it safe through religious wars and pillaging. There was lots of interesting historical detail, as well as enough characterisation to feel invested in all the different characters as well as a twist or two in the modern thread of the story. Good book.
My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan) – Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein
Only two of us had finished reading My Brilliant Friend, and we had very mixed responses to it. I really didn’t like it, just because the writing style wasn’t to my taste (I’m trying to be charitable, and not say it was trashy rubbish, because one man’s trashy rubbish is another man’s enjoyable read) but the other lady really loved it and wanted to read the rest of the books in the series. It was recommended to the group by a woman who’s opinion we respect, so I guess it’s maybe a marmite book. We all agreed that the translation from the original Italian was clunky and not even grammatically correct in places, which could have contributed to my dislike. Also we agreed that the book gives a fascinating insight into the culture and experience of living in a village outside Naples in the post war era. The men all seemed aggressive and confrontational, and the women seemed defined by getting and keeping a man.
A Year Of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman
Most of the group had a lukewarm reception to this book, with the general feeling being ‘what the heck was that all about?’. I loved the book, but did find it quite confusing first time round (I read it again as soon as I’d finished and it became much clearer second time round). It’s the life story of an old lady, Marvellous Ways, and the people who she’d come into contact with during her long life. Marvellous was a midwife and ‘wise woman’ (who some thought of as a witch) and there were magical realism aspects which I love, but the other book group ladies are not so sure about.
Tess of The D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
I’m really behind writing this up again (sorry) but if I remember rightly, we all enjoyed reading Tess (and remembering the various tv and movie adaptations we’d seen over the years!). It led to discussion about how cultural feelings and attitudes change and how what we considered to be the atrocious treatment of Tess, who was made an outcast because of being raped and bearing a child out of wedlock, when the young men who ‘dallied’ were forgiven because men will be men, was perfectly acceptable at the time. In fact apparently the feeling at the time was that Tess got no more than she deserved!
Fallen – Lia Mills
We chose this book because it was part of the ‘Two Cities One Book’ scheme between Dublin and Belfast to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising. The book is set in Dublin and spans the time period of the Easter Rising, told from the point of view of a young woman, Katie whose brother never came home from fighting in the first world war. I enjoyed the book and I think it was generally well received by the book group ladies, although we thought it might have had more historical detail, whereas it really just followed the human story of Katie and her family and how what was happening affected them rather then explaining exactly what was happening. We thought there was depth of meaning as well as readability to it, and the title especially could be taken on several levels – the brother having ‘fallen’ in the war, how the city had ‘fallen’ under the siege and the uprising and how Katie became a ‘fallen’ women when she began to throw off the shackles of female repression and ‘respectability’. We had a book group outing to Dublin to visit the exhibition about the Easter Rising at the General Post Office, which filled in a lot of the historical detail, and also gave us an excuse to go for lots of Dublin cafe’s for refreshments! We were a little dissapointed that Belfast didn’t seem to have nearly as many events around the ‘two cities one book’ thing as Dublin did.
The House Where It Happened – Martina Devlin
I think I was the only book group member who really didn’t like this book. It’s set in Northern Ireland, where we are, so knowing the places and culture was one of the reasons the group felt so positive (I wasn’t born and raised here, although I’ve lived in Belfast since 1988). It’s the story of a witch hunt in 1711 told from the point of view of a housemaid. Most of the accusations of witchery came from an hysterical teenager, and I found it very annoying that she was given such credence (although she was beautiful and aristocratic, and the story is supposed to be based on truth, so I guess it could have happened that way…). I felt the writing was poor- perhaps if more than one point of view had been used, or less repetition it would have been better? Saying that, the other group members all enjoyed it, so maybe it’s just me.
The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
I’m so very late in writing this up, that I’m just going to copy and paste the review I’d already written in my ‘books I read in the last 10 years ‘ page:
This was my book group read for January. It really wasn’t what I was expecting from an older Irish writer. A strange foreign alternative healer turns up in a wee Irish town and the townsfolk are shaken up and excited by his arrival. It turns out he is a wanted war criminal from the Balkans (the novel is a fictionalisation of the story of Radovan Karadzic). The main character, Fidelma, falls for him, and wants to have a baby with him, which is okay until some enemies from the Balkens turn up and there are some quite shockingly violent scenes. The second half of the book is about Fidelma, who has fled to London and is having a terrible life and an array of refugees that she meet and who share their own harrowing tales with her. It got mixed reviews from the book group ladies, but I quite liked it (although I found it quiet disturbing).
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I re-read this book for book group, having already read it some time ago, and strangely liked it much better on second reading. I remember that when I first read it, I found the main character to be a bit preachy and moany and forever giving off about white people, but when I read it again, I didn’t feel that, but identified with her more. Funnily enough, another of the book group ladies agreed with my first thought and also found it preachy. On the whole though, the book was very well received, and we even printed out questions and made a good attempt at answering them before moving on to general gabbing! The book is about Nigerians both at home and in Britain/USA and how they interact with white and black Americans/Brits and the experience of the different cultures.
English Passengers – Matthew Kneale
I missed book group the night this was discussed because I was double booked on a date night with hubby to the Belfast Night of Culture (the book group ladies also went to the Belfast Night of Culture, and discussed the book over cocktails in a Belfast bar!). I didn’t really get much feedback (peoples memories were strangely fuzzy…..?!) but from the emails that went around before the culture night, I got the impression that most of the ladies found the book a bit of a slog (although I really liked it – see my review in the books I read in the last 10 years page).
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
This book is based on the true story of the last woman to be executed for murder in Iceland. The book group ladies who had read it thought it was very well written (I didn’t contribute as much as I would have liked to the discussion because I’d read a few books since this one and I was struggling to remember details – that’s what getting old will do to ya). One member was especially impressed that the writing was so accomplished considering it was a first novel and the writer is relatively young (I think about 30?) And another member said she was hoping for a last minute reprieve for the main character even though it was based on the story of someone who was executed! There was some discussion over how reliable a narrator the convicted woman was – if we believe her story, then her part was more mercy killing, but the police reports from the crime scene suggest different, and as a reader it’s hard to know what the true story is.
The Homesman – Glendon Swarthout
This is a book about the toll taken on women in the terribly bleak environment of the pioneering towns in the United States. It follows the journey (both physical and metaphysical) of the two main characters, a single women and a man she hires to help her transport three women, driven mad by the harshness of their lives, by wagon to the nearest large town where they could get help. The book was very readable, and we all liked it (I think) although it was very sad. The film about it is fabulous, and very true to the book.
Nora Webster – Colm Toibin
I was in the minority in the group for not loving this book. Because it was part slice-of-life, part memoir (the story was based on the writers memories of his mother from when he was a boy after his father died) and I just find real life less satisfying that fiction – I like my narrative structure (!). I could see, however what the others loved about it – the story followed a widow and mother of four in the year (or two) following her husband’s death in small town Ireland where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It showed her journey from not coping with her grief to starting to get on with life again, and it showed the blessing and curse of living in a close community – how it can be suffocating and claustrophobic, but also supportive and safe. The writing was beautiful and everybody could either identify themselves or recognise others in at least some of the characters.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Can you believe I completely forgot about book group the night this book was discussed and I went grocery shopping with hubby instead(!). The book was neither many layered nor full of allegory anyway, so I guess there wasn’t much deep chat about it (or maybe there was… I’ll never know) I know that I though the book was less bad than I expected it to be (having seen the film).
The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
It’s two days after book group and I’m still high from being with my friends and talking about books. We actually printed off book group questions for this one, and worked our way through them. Everyone loved the book, and it generated lots of discussion (it’s unusual in our book group to actually spend most of the time talking about the book!) This story raises lots of issues about oppression and the views of society – in this case about slaves and women, but the talk turned to wider issues where society’s attitudes can make it seem almost acceptable for people to be mistreated (we even went into a tangent discussion about Downton Abbey and the class system!). We liked the alternate chapters from the point of view of Sarah (the abolitionist) and Handful (the slave girl who she had owned), and how they gave different perspectives to the same scenarios, and we liked the running allegories/metaphors about birds and wings and feathers and the story quilts. A couple of us didn’t like the mixing of truth and fiction – for instance, knowing that handful’s story was mostly made up, whereas Sarah’s was mostly true upset me, but then most of the girls in the group weren’t bothered by that at all!
Love Nina – Nina Stibbe
I was down with the flu, so I missed book group when this book was being discussed (for my personal take on it, check out my review on ‘I just read 2’ ) It”s now just after the next book group, so I was able to ask the girls what they thought of Love Nina, and they said the reaction was a bit ‘meah’ and the book didn’t generate that much discussion.
Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee
Everyone in Book group loved the poetry and beauty of Laurie Lee’s writing, and the nostalgic feel of the time before cars when the small village where you lived was your whole world. We loved the descriptions of Laurie Lee’s mother and his uncles, we were horrified by the plot hatched by the village boys to rape one of their female peers, and we hoped they never really planned to go through with it. We also thought Laurie Lee was a bit of a wuss to go on so much about all his illnesses (typical man!)
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
I am very late writing this up (we read it in June, and it’s now September) so I’m struggling to remember what we said about it. I do remember that this book generated quite a lot of discussion – about class and peer pressure and the feeling of not fitting in, and I’m pretty sure most of us enjoyed the book, I know that I did.
TheVan – Roddy Doyle
Well, The Van was quite a different read to what we’re used to – the first thing many of us had to say was about all the swearing – so much! Although we acknowledged that it is probably a true representation of the kind of language that working class Irish people use, and once we got past the language we found the characters interesting and engaging (although there weren’t many, or any, strong positive female characters). On the whole we were glad we’d read it, and it was funny in parts, but there wasn’t a huge amount of discussion as it’s not that deep or layered as novels go.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Due to a combination of working with a particularly trying class of eleven year old inner city kids (the joys of being a substitute teacher) and a flare up of my autoimmune arthritis which always makes me fatigued, I was too exhausted to attend book group this month, which is wick, because I love book group! (They’ve changed the day we get together to a weekend for next time due to my inability to go out on a school night – bless them!) but I gather from the emails that went around after the event that Life After Life had a mixed reception. Our normally mild mannered host felt compelled to use a bad word to describe how much she disliked the book, whereas another member responded by saying she thought it was brilliant! It’s a while since I read it, but I remember liking it. Pity I missed the discussion – ah well. We’re doing Roddy Doyle’s The Van next time.
Monsignor Quixote – Graham Greene
Some of us had been worried that a Graham Greene book might be hard to read, but in fact the opposite was true – this is a lovely and very readable book and while the two main characters, naive but well meaning priest, Monsignor Quixote, and his best friend and communist party member, Sancho, had some very deep conversations about idealised beliefs and how they don’t play out well in reality, unlike this very long sentence (sorry) they were very easy to read because the characters are so sweet and funny. The book parallels the story of Don Quixote and is quite hilarious in a gentle way. It made us all want to fly off to Spain and eat Manchego cheese washed down with lots of Manchego wine!
The Twin – Gerbrand Bakker
I’m late writing this up (again – sorry) so I’ll try to remember what was said. I think all of us who had finished the book loved the style of writing – there’s something intangible but so real about a good book that just feels right after reading books where poor writing is so irritating that it gets in the way of the plot. This book was slow moving without being boring, and bleak without being depressing. Set in Holland, the setting is a much a character as the long dead twin and the living twin, Helmer, who narrates the story. Helmer has lived most of his life trying to replace his brother, putting aside his own dreams to fill the void. As his aging father nears death, it is finally time for Helmer to start making choices for himself. It was a deep book with plenty of themes and scenes for us to discuss and generally got two thumbs up from the group. (Except for one member who accidentally read The Twins by Saskia Sarginson, which she said was a pretty good read too!)
The Cleaner of Chartres – Salley Vickers
One of the members of book group for the full ten years we have been together sadly died the week before we met in August 2013. Maureen was always the life and soul of any group she was involved in and will be very much missed. A few days before she died, Mo, who was very ill with cancer told her dear friend and our fellow book group member, Irene that she’d read and loved the book, and gave Irene a hard time for not having it finished yet! Even at that stage, Mo was planning to attend, and in a very real way she was with us as we met, and needless to say we didn’t talk about the book much (I have written a short review on my ‘I Just Read 2 page). Irene was the perfect hostess, in spite of the week she’s been through, and the food and the company was nourishing and good.
All The Beggars Riding – Lucy Caldwell
This book was fairly well liked, by those of us who’d read it. It was our summer Pimms night, with a lovely supper supplied by our group leader, Sheila but we still managed to talk about the theme of men having double lives and more than one ‘wife’ and children. And we quite liked the ending of the book where the nice Irish brother is introduced. Like the previous book, though, we thought it was okay but not great.
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!
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.
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 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.
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
(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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Damilola 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Trespass – 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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 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 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 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.
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!)
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.
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.
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 Drowning, which I LOVED!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 nonplussed, the remembering of childhood and family is fairly universal – we can all wince with embarrassment 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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
Frankie and Stankie – Barbara Trapido
Frankie and Stankie is about a white girl growing up in South Africa under Apartheid. It was well received 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.
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.