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The Family Tree: A Novel by Carole Cadwalladr
 
Book Club Recommended
Confusing, Insightful, Informative
The Group Review

“the most important thing for me above everything else are the characters and the story” confides author, Carole Cadwalladr, during a book review by The Daily Mail. Her first book ‘The Family Tree’ was the first book our group chose to review.
It was agreed generally that the plot was good because it was realistic and unpredictable, but not everyone enjoyed reading it. Cadwalladr herself admits:
“I'm a very impatient reader and if I'm not dragged into the story very early on I'm inclined to give up and I really held this in mind when I was writing The Family Tree.”
One group member never made it past page 60 and most readers agreed that they might not have preserved with the lengthy book if it had not been on the group’s review list. The consensus was ‘too much book and not enough plot’.
The descriptive passages were useful, not overly emotional and not over-laboured. Structurally the book was not helped by the use of extensive footnotes and an erratic chronological order of events in the short chapters. Sudden, short bursts of information were hard to digest.
Major themes in the story are the dysfunctional family, nature or nurture and racial prejudice. The ending is effective and unexpected. This makes the book a worthwhile read.
The main character, Rebecca, is actually part of her husband Alistair’s research. His behaviour and attitudes do not change in the course of the book, but hers do.
Rebecca’s mother, Doreen, has manic depression (bi-polar disorder). This is made apparent through Doreen’s response to the royal wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Therefore the story had to be set in England.
Most members of the group would recommend ‘The Family Tree’ to a friend. They said it is enjoyable although it takes a while for the reader to establish a rapport with the characters.

Cadwalladr has published no further books. The group mainly agreed that she put so much work into this manuscript that she would have to write about a different subject completely with any subsequent novel.

 
Poorly Written, Pointless, Confusing
Pretentious Drivel

The consensus amongst our members was that the positive reports and glowing reviews on Amazon and on the book cover were just propaganda and written by people who had never actually tried to read this waste of paper.

Not one of our readers finished the book. After only 3 pages into it, one of us insightfully decided that there was no plot and the author's words would never reach wherever they were aimed.

The rest of us who persevered onto 2 or 3 chapters felt it was best to step back from 'The Accidental' after that and find something worthwhile to read instead.

We are concerned that the publishers may regularly invest in similar dreary, complex and unsatisfying rantings. There are so many much better writers who deserve the opportunity to go public.




The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Dark
Mari Strachan has it absolutely spot on!

Gwenni Morgan, the main character, is a young girl living in a Welsh-speaking village in North Wales. One of our group members had a similar up bringing and described this version of it as ‘Absolutely brilliant!’ She especially appreciated the recollection of Sundays with Chapel in the morning and Sunday School in the afternoon stating: ‘Mari has it absolutely spot on about this.’


One reader, who stopped reading the book very early on, said it seemed to be ‘whimsy’ and therefore had not interested her at all. She disliked the use of a present tense narrative and the contradiction of using sophisticated words in a ‘child’s voice’.

Conversely, the majority of us felt this was a compelling novel and reviewing it developed into a variety of lively discussions. This is our third book in succession about ‘odd’ people. The issue of mental illness and its being inherited, possibly through the female line, runs thoughout the narrative. Gwenni’s mother, Mrs Morgan, is obsessed with the idea that her neighbours will dub Gwenni ‘odd’ and conveniently ignores the fact that she, herself, is most peculiar. Everyone knows what goes on, but it is rare for someone to gossip publicly.



The villagers really have little choice, but to be integrated fully into the social and spiritual influences of their Church. Gwenni, however, seems more interested in knowing who made the egg sandwiches, because they are her favourites and they won’t upset ‘the family stomach’.


We discussed the 1950s era and how they were remembered as ‘dark’ times. Big families were normal, offering someone to confide in, but Gwenni has a poor relationship with her Mother and older sister. The kind-hearted, but misguided Mr Morgan dotes on his ungrateful, unstable wife. Gwenni escapes in daydream ‘flights of fancy’ from distressing realities.


Gwenni finds herself giving evidence to the police and is forced to do this in English. She is uncomfortable about it, because she cannot express herself as clearly as in Welsh. We discussed how Welsh language is so very much part of our local culture and not exclusive to North Wales. The incident reinforces the idea that she often finds herself stuck in an adult world, craving her childhood.


Average score was 6/10.

Resistance by Owen Sheers
 
Gloomy, Epic, Slow
My Resistance is Low!

Sheers is already a minor celebrity and his website lists his many successes. These include the new film coming out that is based on this particular book. This poet and author was born in Fiji in the 1970s and brought up in Abergavenny, South Wales (United Kingdom).



‘Resistance’ is a World War II novel that explores possibilities of wartime events that would have reshaped the world has we know it. The research and feasibility studies of such adventures and misadventures are likely to have been based on factual evidence. Similarities are predictable between the plot and factual evidence from the build up to the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands.

All our members agreed that the author’s love of words and excessive use of them did not made this an easy book to read. It is Sheer’s first published novel and one member wondered if he was paid per word!

The majority of us read the first few chapters and skipped to the ending, or just gave up completely. Only one reader has actually finished the book and said that it was only about mid-way through that she began to really care what happened to the main characters.

Another member commented that although the book seemed to be well written, but ‘it wasn’t for me!’

We noted that some books seemed more suitable for men than women and how difficult it would be to work out if ‘Resistance’ as a wartime novel, might appeal more to men. There was no one in the plot that our members felt they could relate to and the characters were not very interesting.

The group went on to discuss how World War II still affects patterns of speech and behaviour even now. Members who were born up to a decade after 1945 grew up with the effects of rationing and queuing for food. They clearly remember dire warnings about eating everything up, or risking the disapproval of elderly relations.

It was acknowledged that locally, in the Llanelli area, the effects of a world war were minor in comparisons with the devastation in cities in the United Kingdom like London, Cardiff and Swansea. One German pilot did manage to lose his way and landed at Pembrey by mistake. (Our local airport near Llanelli in Wales)
We gave it an average mark of only 2 out of 10.

Hide and Seek: A Novel by Clare Sambrook
 
Difficult, Unconvincing, Confusing
Better to hide and not seek at all!

The book review discussion began with particularly scathing comments: ‘Where’s the bonfire?’ and ‘Burn the book!’


We wondered whether it was now fashionable to write in a child’s voice because it is becoming a regular feature in our group's reading list.


Only one of our members actually finished reading to the last page. She declared that no conclusions were ever reached in the book and as far as halfway through it she accepted this fact and this enabled her to finish it. She felt that midway through the story the reader ceased to wait for the discovery of the missing child.


The group agreed that the story would have been based on some factual evidence. Briefly we discussed survivor guilt and mentioned the tragedy at Aberfan. (On the 21 October 1966, 144 people, 116 of them children, were killed when a tip of coal waste slid onto the village of Aberfan in South Wales, United Kingdom.)


An average mark of 3 out of 10 was given.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
 
Dark, Insightful, Dramatic
The perils of tourism in ‘Discworld’ for the unprepared

Group Review by Burry Port Bookworms

'He is a satirist of enormous talent... His jokes slide under your skin as swiftly as a hypodermic syringe, leaving you giggling helplessly' - The Times. This was quoted on the Amazon website in reference to this book. Conversely according to our members who are familiar with the author, this is not as much of a light and amusing read as many of his.


Without prior knowledge of the peculiarities and a little background into the eccentricities and wackiness of Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ this is not a simple story to follow. In fact, as a first glimpse into the author’s amazing mind it might well discourage curiosity towards reading anything else by him. This book is filled with humour, but that is over-shadowed, quite intentionally, in the dark, brooding, gloomy places where the most extraordinary characters are lurking.


If you were planning to make this your first encounter with ‘Discworld’ then those who understand what delights await you, would recommend you start with an earlier adventure such as ‘Wyrd Sisters’ because it is easy to follow, very cleverly composed and the perfect antidote to the greyest of weekends.


Having warned prospective explorers about the perils of tourism in ‘Discworld’ for the unprepared, this is how the narrative unfolds:


Sam Vines, now an effective, shrewd and commanding figure of ‘The Night Watch’ (the policing element of urban Ankh-Morpork) earned his stripes with the best of mentors. Not only does he have a mass murderer to track down now, but with the unwelcome intervention of magic, he moves back in time and finds that the murderer has travelled back too. Enlisting in the Night Watch to rally forces against the killer he becomes aware of a particular officer, Samuel Vines, who is his younger self. Out of necessity he unwittingly repeats history by becoming a mentor himself and drags the young man into his charge. Together they hurtle into a fast-paced, multi-faceted exploration into what is good and what is evil.


We would have to give this a low mark out of 10 because it did not appeal to most our readers, except one, who were new to the Discworld universe and the others would recommend starting with almost any other novel in the series.

 
Book Club Recommended
Optimistic, Romantic, Insightful
Will Charlie Keep His Head Above the Clouds?

The element of surprise worked until the end for the majority of our members and that was what made the story so enjoyable. Most of us agreed the book improved as it continued, one member did not make it very far into the book at all. Others who have seen the Bruce Willis film ‘The Sixth Sense’ anticipated the ending early on.

We wondered about the most suitable age group for this book. The book sleeves differ and there appear to be at least three versions. The original from 2005 shows two boys playing with a rope swing. The 2010 version features a pose from the film with Zac Efron (of High School Musical fame) and Amanda Crew. We agreed that the new cover might have appealed to early or mid teens, but it would have discouraged us to buy the book and not encouraged any of us to read it or to borrow that edition from the library. We felt that the book is neither twee nor tacky and does not merit being cheapened with a cheesy cover.

We discussed the loss of a loved one and wondered if someone who was recently bereaved would be offended or comforted by the plot. Charlie St Cloud has cultivated an existence that revolves around working in a graveyard and chatting to the graveside mourners who are not what they first appear to be. His meeting up with his younger brother every day after work excludes him from intimacy with anyone else. His obsession is based on guilt because he feels responsible for killing his brother. They meet year after year and whilst Charlie finds it impossible to move on, his brother remains a ghost.

The majority vote was that this was an easy, quick and cosy ‘fireside’ read.

Facing the Light by Adele Geras
 
Poorly Written, Unconvincing, Slow
No intrigue in heirloom paintings

Our group really struggled to come up with a positive slant to our review of this tome: it is a book that is interesting to criticise.
We felt that it was the writer’s primary function to sustain the audience’s attention, but through lack of engagement, some members never continued beyond the second chapter.
The plot was felt to be formulaic and therefore somewhat predictable. This is certainly not the happiest of stories. Events and revelations take place over a weekend, during a family reunion. The secrets uncovered are not that dark and are more of a coincidence than shocking.
From the beginning it was ‘a long slog’ and ultimately very unsatisfying. The dates heading each chapter are misleading, because the time frame changes mid-chapter regardless of its best intentions.
The people in the story are predictable, their personalities unexplored and, therefore, they remain of little interest. There are many token characters (the strange names are an unnecessary distraction) and they are probably, in the main, irrelevant.
The twist in the tale at the end is not enough to save this book. It was agreed that even if the amount of pages had been halved and had the intrigue of the heirloom paintings been prolonged to the end, ultimately it would still have been a disappointing read.

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Beautiful, Insightful
Reviewing this book undervalues the effort made in its development

Book Review by Burry Port Bookworms:


There is trouble in Paradise, where this drama unfolds. Under investigation within an Amish community is the murder of a newborn baby, most likely by its teenage mother. There is a whole lot of not telling the truth in East Paradise (Pennsylvania) where these reclusive ‘Plain People’ are weaving convenient lies.


The Amish culture skirts around a modern existence and embraces a patriarchal society of traditional farming with its own distinct community values and rules. No time is spent by the author analysing strengths and weaknesses of this particular way of life and its values and there is no defence or criticism of the evident hypocrisy of people who live secret and parallel lives within it. As a group, we asked if the ‘Plain Truth’ was based on their truth or the author’s perception of it.


The abundance of research for this novel, in respect of the Amish was felt highly commendable. We learnt about their day to day existence, their dependence on farming for their income and how their religious beliefs affected their behaviour.


Despite the seriousness of the allegations and the morality issues involved, this novel is lightweight. We agreed that the characters are inconsequential and uninspiring.


To us, it was frustrating that no moral stand was taken on either the lawyer representing guilty clients to achieve verdicts of innocence, or the lawyer making a conscious decision to conceal the truth and leave a killer unpunished. The author also skirts around offering a conclusion to the story which made us wonder if she was allowing herself an opportunity to pursue a sequel.


Jodi Picoult, as a very popular successful author, appears undaunted in her vast range of subject matter. Unfortunately her plot for ‘Plain Truth’ appears shallow under our book worms’ scrutiny and reviewing it undervalues the effort made in its development. Some of us have read other (if not all) of her books and agreed that this was one of her weakest. It lacks punch, drama and limps towards an unimpressive, uninspired ending.


We gave it an average mark of 5.5

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Informative
Exciting and well-written - our group enjoyed reading it

“Watch and learn Mary, there’s no room for mistakes at Court’ warns her mother, Elizabeth Boleyn, whilst they watch another life being ended at the whim of King Henry VIII. No one keeps their head intact if they obstruct his bludgeoning path through life.
This is a novel and not a biography and seen through the eyes of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, an unknown in traditional British history. His Majesty is attracting, in equal measures, admirers to be impressed and enemies (actual and perceived) to be overpowered. His first wife, known to us as Catherine of Aragon, is depicted as a natural Queen, loving, loyal and an ideal consort. Mary Boleyn is one of the Royal Ladies-in-Waiting and, initially at least, respects and loves the Queen who is devastated that she unable to produce a living male heir.
In a time when women were marketable and a commodity to be used by any man with influence on the family to enhance its position in court, Mary, at first unwillingly it would seem, assumes the role of mistress to the King, falls in love with him and produces him a ‘Fitzroy’, an illegitimate son. Henry, in the meantime, has eyes only for her sister and wants nothing more to do with mother or child.
Anne makes the most of Henry’s obsession for her and convinced that he will worship her forever, denies him sex before marriage. To overcome this obstacle, he is persuaded to set up a new religion ‘The Church of England’ that allows him to divorce his long-suffering wife, whereas his original religion, The Catholic Church, does not. (Ironically, the Vatican in Rome reputedly still houses a series of love letters from King Henry to Anne Boleyn.)
Mary asks the King to show mercy towards Anne when her death sentence is announced: ‘Is she to die for being an obedient daughter?’ Their brother, George and their father, are executed in due course too. George Boleyn, is shown to be obsessive and immoral. Needlessly marrying a woman he detests (Jane Parker) and being accused of incest with Anne, his involvement in the story helps to seal her immortal infamy.
We are lead to believe that, because Mary loved Henry as a man not as a king, he let her survive. She lived happily (albeit for a short time) far away from the Royal Court and inherited the family estate.

We gave it an average mark of 8/10

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Beautiful
The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

There was no doubt in our minds that this was something a little different. Those whose interest it managed to hold found it worthwhile the time it took to become comfortable with a very large book in which ‘Death’ was the narrator.
Living amongst the ordinary population of war-time Nazi Germany, the main characters include a young girl, Leisel, who is taken in by a foster family. The father teaches her to read when she reaches bottom of her class at school.
There is much to follow as the stories of loss of life in different circumstances are revealed. Whilst the Nazis are burning books by authors they despise, Leisel develops a love of reading and steals books as entertainment. ‘Death’ visits her 3 times during the story and one time she survives as she is reading in the cellar when a bomb drops on the building. We wondered why, with the threat of starvation, Leisel is not also stealing food as well as reading material.
Other supporting background information includes references to how the Germans are under pressure to join the Nazi party, the consequences of bombing by the British and how Leisel’s foster family hides a Jewish fugitive in their home.
Our group was certain that the gimmicky disjointed style of writing was an unnecessary distraction. Possibly it was introduced to attract the adolescent reader, but if Zusak, this established writer of children’s books, was looking to engage 12 year old readers, why stretch out the book with such elaborate descriptive passages to fill over 500 pages?
There are many vivid descriptions that show the contrast between the colourless perspective of ‘Death’ and the amazing colour spectrum of life. Colours are a major influence on description passages, but this then overshadows the chronological focus. It becomes confusing at times, especially when noteworthy highlights are revealed prematurely. A comparison to the genius of The Diary of Anne Frank, on the book cover, appears to be a random and totally misguided until other themes of this book are discussed. Parallels could be seen regarding the enduring influence of the written word and how censorship and limiting freedom of speech can badly affect a person’s survival instinct and undermine their strength to fight death.
Having stayed on track through to the final pages were our readers rewarded with a satisfactory ending? Well, perhaps you should try reading ‘The Book Thief’ yourselves?
Our average mark was 6.5 out of 10.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Slow, Informative
Curiousity saved the cat

Curiosity was aroused from page one for the bizarre behaviour and personalities outlined by the journalist narrator and his vivid descriptions of local events in the 1980s, Savannah, U.S.A.
It seems that tourism and travel to this area have thrived through the introductions made by this author. The sudden interest undoubtedly comes from knowing a little about the eccentrics, the appeal of the historical colonial architecture and a feeling of having already been there through the pages of the book.
Some of us were totally engaged in the eccentricities of characters in this true life depiction and one particularly shines out as a delight to encounter. ‘The Lady Chablis’; he/she is a one off who self-promotes with outrageous behaviour and thrives in an extremely unusual way of life.
Two members agreed that having a dislike of the ‘Deep South’ or the preconceived ‘Gone with The Wind’ setting, combined with the slow build up to any sort of action had made them lose interest early on. Having watched the movie (screened conveniently on television at the time) made the plot more understandable for them, but it had not encouraged them to return to finish reading the story.
The mention of Voodoo practices would have put one reader off the book completely, but she persevered because it had been recommended to the group and was not disappointed.
The four murder trials are the major focus for the second half of the book and this did not make easy reading. The murder victim (Danny Hansford) was a male prostitute and the defendant (Jim Williams) was a respected antiques dealer. The victim was not likeable or popular and this made it difficult to side with the prosecution case. Our group went onto discuss Jury Service, our personal experiences of it and how it would be difficult to decide who and who not to believe when the legal beagles work so hard to convince us what is the truth. Jim Williams, the defendant, changes his story as he sees fit and so, ultimately, he is not so likeable either.
We gave an average mark of 5 and most felt it was a very worthwhile read.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Inspiring
The interpretations of ‘Queen Bee

Lily is 14 years old when the book begins and has been brought up by her father T-Ray who is a tyrant, never showing any affection for the girl. She is a constant reminder of his wife and the strange circumstances surrounding her death.
Lily runs away from home on a mission to find out more about her mother and the journey she takes, along with their black housekeeper Rosaleen, leads her to a honey farm and the three black sisters who keep it in business. There is emphasis on the importance of Christianity in the life of the sisters and their iconic ‘Black Madonna’ that features on the labels for the honey.
May Boatwright is the most sensitive and fragile of the sisters. Her twin died and she has found solace from the pain she feels personally and for others by building a wailing wall to post notes. August Boatwright, the eldest of the sisters at the honey farm, binds the women together. She understands her family and the weaknesses of human nature. We discussed the interpretation of ‘Queen Bee’. Was August, as the matriarch of the family keeping everyone focussed on their responsibilities ‘Queen Bee’ because people automatically did what they were asked by her? Or was it her position because she was the one responsible for the productivity of the family unit/the hive. Perhaps there is not really much difference?
We also talked about the tendency for women to gather in insular social groups and get to know each other very well. It was felt that men were probably more competitive by nature and generally interested in discussing a limited range of subjects such as sports.
Lots of ‘firsts’ in the story make extremely convenient highlights: votes for blacks, colleges for blacks and the forbidden fruit - Lily’s first love, a crush on August Boatwright’s godson, Zach. Our group all perservered with this book to the end and most of us agreed that it was worthwhile. With stereo-typical characters, a methodical & predictable plot it could have been just another novel about a tortured, adolescent genius during the racial disharmony of 1960s southern states of America.
We ended by talking about the possibility of a future relationship between Lily and her father. It would probably hinge on them forgiving each other for huge mistakes in their past. T-Ray not only tormented his daughter physically, but he said that she was abandoned by Deborah before her death and makes the accusation that, as a four year old, Lily pulled the trigger that caused her mother’s death.
Our average vote gave this book 6/10.

The Brethren by John Grisham
 
Book Club Recommended
Persuasive, Interesting, Insightful
The power of the written word

Our bookworms are predominantly female and this novel was specifically chosen by us because the author is known for appealing more to men. Most of us were aware of ‘John Grisham’s thrillers’, but few had read any of them. Predictably our reactions to both the seemingly unconnected plots and the Americanisms (especially in politics) were mixed. We all agreed that the book can be divided into parts and some of them are more enthralling than others.
One storyline involves ‘The Brethren’, three ex-Judges who are now long-term prisoners themselves. They host in-house trials, hold positions of strength in their open prison environment and have taken to extortion like true professionals.
The other activity is a focus on the involvement of the CIA and the implications of its implied power to corrupt, manipulate and abruptly end lives. In this case, apparently they have the world’s salvation at heart, as they speed-launch a presidential candidacy with all the subtlety of a suicide bomber.
We discussed the huge amounts of money and influencing involved in political battles and why it is presumed that politicians generally lack morality and scruples. A comparison situation involving similar funding and panic mongering in the U.K. could mean that anyone from anywhere could make it here as Prime Minister.
The plot was not predictable and it was an engaging book for the most part, although it was lacking in action at times. None of the main characters is particularly appealing, even those who are supposedly innocent victims of blackmail scams. One of the more likeable prisoners is a young hapless chap who finds himself adopted by ‘The Brethren’ and is offered a ‘free ticket’ out of the prison because they need a letter delivered.
As a group we gave it an average of 5.5 out of 10.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Brilliant, Epic
Make do, accept, survive

This classic work, written in 1939, depicts a familiar tale of tragic and shocking events at that time. Greedy, heartless property owners oust tenants from their homes with promises of a fruitful, happy life far away.
These people were used to relentless hardships and were already down-trodden, having fallen on hard times before due to droughts, flooding and ‘acts of God’. They had managed before to pick themselves back up and stand to fight them again. However, there was no winning this time, as the poorest of tenant farmers they were left defenceless against deception and betrayal inflicted, without restriction, through the power of money.
This story is depicted with methodically slow descriptions of increasingly depressing circumstances that were beyond these people’s control. The plight of similar communities within supposedly ‘civilised’ society and the many thousands who migrated are seen here through the eyes of the Joad family from Oklahoma. We learn much about Ma, Pa, Tom and Casy and share their helpless frustration and ineffectual acts of desperation. The recurring theme is that people will make do, accept and survive.
Ma Joad develops throughout the narrative as a strong matriarchal character who keeps the family together, fed and alive. She advocates selflessness, dignity and principle. In contrast, Pa Joad, who was a strong person, is worn down through their misadventures. He loses his spirit on their journey and retires into the background leaving his wife little choice, but to take the leadership role.
The book starts just after their son, Tom has been released from jail for murder. We experience his traumatic return, with the insightful Casy (a former preacher) to a derelict, empty wasteland that was once the family farm.
Our group found this a ‘powerful read’ that was frustrating and hard-going at times like the trials endured by the families, particularly in the first 150 pages. After that, the regional accent becomes familiar and the style of writing intrigues rather than frustrates. The relentless repetition might be off putting for the less determined reader. Some of us who had encountered ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ decades ago still found it very interesting and absorbing. It was agreed that some effort is needed to continue reading and not everyone in the group managed to finish the book.

Our average mark was 6.5 out of 10.

 
Reading for Junior Officers maybe, but not a lot of interest in it from us

This insight into an army recruit’s thoughts and experiences seems to have testosterone leaping off every page. There are informative comparisons between military and civilian lifestyles that suggest why adjustments to be made when returning ‘home’ are so much more than just a change of clothes. What begin as sources of irritation for the off-duty soldier can be catalysts for physical demonstrations of frustration.


After the rigours of endless training drills and training re-enactments, the new solders are seemingly ‘bored senseless’ for long periods and they hunger for news of their deployment. Conversely, their families hope their sons and daughters will never experience the unique brutality of war.


It pays to remember that this is not a novel, although that offers minimal justification for the adrenaline released in the first few paragraphs not being generated throughout the book. The many acronyms (initials for names or procedures) that add authenticity to the narrative are similarly disappointing. Using the glossary at the back, especially for the more humdrum definitions, does nothing to help build-up a satisfying pace or intrigue.


The reviews on the cover are exclusively written by men who appreciate the author’s unambiguous and seemingly authentic depictions of both violence and mundanity. Our group of female readers were unanimous in recognising that we had learned something from this book, but all, bar one, did not finish reading it. Most of us felt that the really impressive start was no indication of what would follow.


Our average mark was 4.5 out of 10.

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue
 
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Disappointing and unconvincing

The dialogue is purposefully set with the voice of a child, Jack. He has lived a very short and contented life in isolation from anything and anyone outside his immediate surroundings. This man-made environment is ‘Room’. As Jack starts to find out how confusing it can be to uncover the difference between truths and lies, we puzzle over the unique relationships Jack has with the adults around him. Slowly the bizarre background to his situation is revealed and we recoil in horror.
Without a hint that his lifestyle is about to completely up-end it becomes essential for him to understand that he has been living a lie. Everything he thinks he knows is wrong and everything he believes to be true is false. We discover that his existence maintains someone else’s sanity. What really dictates his familiar daily and weekly schedules is the need to keep him alive, calm and happy. His range of activities and hunger for knowledge has been restricted to the smallest database, but now his tiny world is about to go global!
This novel succeeds where others have failed since, although the story is distressing, all those in our group who started it, finished it. However we felt the story was not totally convincing. Some of us found the immature and invented language quite irritating in view of his advanced reading age and apparent intelligence. Unfortunately Jack failed to gain our sympathy.
We gave it an average score of 5 out of 10.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic
Significant and appropriate

Group review: The main characters, a mother and daughter, are convincing and unusual. Grace and Jenny communicate as ‘half’ ghosts with practiced banter, alongside justified frustration and distress.

Nothing in this book is predictable. The main themes of family, friendship and helplessness are used to maintain the suspense until the end. There is an indication of family abuse, but this is not fully investigated. Grace’s husband Michael and their son, Adam, do not share a close relationship. There is more than a hint of jealousy when Adam and his sister, Jenny, target their father to gain his attention, looking for signs of love and approval. Grace and Michael’s marriage lacks passionate commitment, but it endures. Their family tragedy seems to strengthen their attachment to each other: “You kissed me and the sum of our marriage was greater than the differences.”

The ending is significant and appropriate. One of our readers would like to have known more about the survivors’ fates and who would get into the most trouble for what happened.

The average mark was 7 out of 10.

The Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Dramatic
Felt almost guilty to have ‘enjoyed’ reading it

There is nothing like an inflated ego to spice up the profile of a self-righteous lunatic. Perhaps it is a good thing that some of our members did not venture into this account of how it is possible to exist without a conscience and remain unaffected about killing someone.

Probation Officer Cate Austin, returning from ‘The Woman Before Me’ by the same author, attempts to second-guess and outwit Alice Mariani, who has responded enthusiastically to a personal advert searching for someone romantic to assist in a suicide.

In order to achieve a recommendation to keep her out of prison, the selfish, very twisted Alice must win the sympathy of Cate who is only too aware of the defendant’s over-critical, egocentric nature. Alice tries show-case to the professionals that she is insane, but it is her love for the unreachable ‘Smith’ that needs to be believed. This is the man who needs so much adoration that his lover will help him achieve a truly memorable death.

The main characters are undeniably intriguing, but not in the least bit likeable. They seem to take interesting turns in being dangerous or sympathetic, dominant or submissive, evil or misunderstood. There is more than one twist in the tale that makes this a difficult book to put down.

Compared to the average horror story this is mild, but that does not mean it is not both peculiar and disturbing. The book does not seek to preach or educate on the subject of assisted suicide. It is more about outlining how manipulative and calculating narcissistic people can be. The subject matter might put some readers off, but most of our group were engaged immediately by it and felt almost guilty to have ‘enjoyed’ reading it.

The average mark was 7.5 out of 10.

 
Book Club Recommended
Is is possible to ignore your genes?

Modern day Englishman William has grown up with a legacy that ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody is his ancestor and his childhood fireside stories were legends of Wild West showmen ‘The Congress of Rough Riders’.
William struggles to ignore his genes and travels far away escape from their influence. He aims to distance himself from a father who wants to encourage him to pursue heroic adventures of his own.
Despite an antipathy for the author’s style early on, the majority felt it was well-written and surprisingly insightful.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
 
Adventurous, Interesting, Brilliant
A tragic misadventure

This particularly complex sequence of events on a seemingly endless journey of discovery has been brought to life in an action-packed adventure very recently. It might be a likely assumption that this book has been made into a successful movie because it is made of ‘best seller’ material.
It was felt that there was no absorbing build-up to an exceptional account of endurance involving a young boy called ‘Pi’ and, amongst other animals from a zoo collection, a Bengal tiger.
Within the context of an extended sea voyage the reader could have developed empathy with a frightened, desperate young survivor of a tragic misadventure. The circumstances of the plot might have offered an entertaining and insightful zoologist’s perspective.
Despite finishing ‘Life of Pi’ and agreeing that the alternative ending compounds a confusing, inconsistent narrative, a couple of readers from our group gave it a second chance. They re-read some of it and began making a little more sense of the disparity between the first part and the last. Within our group, Man Booker Prize entries have a reputation for weirdness and unfathomability.
Whilst we discussed the realities of survival, one group member suggested that the mind of a very distressed child could morph humans into animals and that within this hallucination the main character ‘Pi’ could have been propelled towards uncharacteristic savagery .
This book failed to offer up the bones of a good read because of the long explanations of childhood non-events, detailed zoological miscellanea and an unnecessary level of brutality towards captive animals.
Average score of 6.5 out of 10

 
Inspiring, Informative, Insightful
Tapers off to a disappointing finale

This is a record of the adventures of the visionary, Greg Mortenson. As an experienced mountaineer and team medic he has an abundance of stubbornness amongst his transferable skills and he continues to achieve what seems the impossible by instigating the building of schools in the remotest mountain communities.
Most of our group agreed that ‘Three Cups of Tea’ was difficult to put down at first. It is obvious from early on that he has built on his reputation for having achieved amazing feats with a large network of supporters and facilitators.
Greg Mortenson’s main fault may well have been failing to delegate when he was out of his depth, particularly with foreign affairs in project management and logistics. On discovery of ‘Three Cups of Deceit’ by Jon Krakauer we were made aware of the failings of this modern day hero whose obsession frustrated and alienated accountants, his friends and his family. One example of fraudulent activity was exposed in an Attorney General’s investigation. The report demanded that Mortenson be made to repay the relevant charity (The C.A.I. – Central Asia Institute) over one million dollars for expenses relevant to the promotion of his book, rather than for the building of schools.
This book was supposedly co-written with David Oliver Relin. It is this reporter’s voice that seems to come through loudest, at times almost like a fan club magazine.
We agreed that, unfortunately, boundless energy and enthusiasm and the highs and lows of one project after another, make the narrative hard going. It tapers off to a disappointing finale.

Our average score was 5 out of 10

 
Book Club Recommended
Beautiful, Interesting, Adventurous
Vivid descriptions of the incredible beauty of the region

This is a debut novel for Native Alaskan Eowyn Ivey, a journalist who has grown up hunting bears and loving the snow that surrounds her family for up to nine months each year. The novel, set in 1920s Alaska, is a reworked traditional Russian fairy tale with life breathed into it from her own experience.
When Mabel and Jack move to Alaska they struggle to build up a derelict site into a working farm. Battling against the isolation and the extreme climate put major strains on their relationship. Following the still-birth of a baby they have been unable to regain an intimacy that allows them to talk through the tragedy. The absence of a child profoundly affects their daily lives and as a farmer’s wife going about her daily chores Mabel, particularly, has time to brood. Her role changes and she finds more purpose taking on manual farm work when Jack has a bad accident.
In a rare moment of playfulness they build a snow child. It vanishes in the night leaving a trail of footprints leading towards the trees where they glimpse a young girl. She calls herself Faina and in what seems to be a first half of the story this blonde-haired hunter with a red fox companion is like a fairy and a character from the couple’s imagination. They come to adore her as if she were their own child. In what can be thought of as a second half to the book, Faina is seen by other people, so there is an assumption that she is a real person.
There is no doubt of the sadness and pathos of the situation; the coldness, loneliness and isolation effectively portray the brutalities of living in a wilderness. There are vivid descriptions of the incredible beauty of the region and a clear vision of the strange frailty and endurance of mysterious Faina and the admirable capacity of Mabel and Jack to survive and endure.
The group gave this 6/10 as an average score.

The Language of Flowers: A Novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Interesting
A childhood where love is never unconditional

Bunches of flowers cannot mend broken hearts, or perhaps they can? Victoria, who has endured and tested a succession of foster homes, absorbs a lost Victorian language and uses it to express, with flowers, the words she cannot speak.
There is surprisingly little information on Victoria’s background. What there is does not really inspire sympathy or empathy. It is clear, however, that it is very easy for her to be misunderstood. She has most likely fallen foul of the care system because of her self-preservation tactics. Her quietness, unwillingness to be touched and ‘flight or fight’ impulses when cornered, would probably be seen as unacceptable behaviour, leading to punishment by the carers and that in turn would have compounded defence mechanisms and dictated to her a repeating pattern of actions and thoughts.
Victoria uses her hidden intelligence to engineer acts of revenge and destruction on those who are made responsible for her welfare and especially those who try to love her.
There is a hint of the difficulties involved in foster care, or adoption, of an extremely disturbed orphan and the problems involved with parenting and supervision of the carers. Our group wondered if such a destructive, antisocial and unhinged personality with a dysfunctional lifestyle would have been the result of nature or nurture.
Despite the complexities of Victoria’s internal conflicts, her character does not really develop much depth in the story.
It is not a complex plot to follow, nor a difficult story to read and all our group members finished it, although we found the time changes confusing.
We also discussed the effects of a childhood where love is never unconditional. How is adulthood affected by growing up feeling non-existent, worthless and unlovable? The front cover of this book reads ‘Anyone can grow into something beautiful’, but we felt the reality was different. Some of us felt that the outcome of the story is predictable but, conversely, it is also highly unlikely.
Our average mark was 6/10

 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Fun, Insightful
Flowing visualisations and scenery detail

Finding love late in life has turned Ernest Pettigrew’s world upside down. This respectable gentleman is facing previously unknown and unexpected challenges because he falls for the village’s ‘Pakistani’ shopkeeper.
Lonely and retired widower, Major Pettigrew shares a love of literature with a widow in her mid-fifties, Mrs Ali. It leads to romance and straight into the path of conflict with their respectively prejudiced families and the neighbours who used to be their friends. The stereotypical characters’ genteelness is just a facade and racialism is highlighted from all the different cultures.
The story is modern day with an old-fashioned style to it where the main characters are called ‘Mrs’ and ‘Major’. The minor characters were quirky and in some ways more intriguing, because light work was made of side issues and introductions were done through quick cameos.
We felt that the cover with its bright colours, flowing text and teacups was set to appeal to women and would compensate for the title that might appeal more to men.
The half British and half American vocabulary and splashes of humour reveal the author’s roots in England and her home across the Atlantic.
This is a lightweight book with a predictable plot. It did not prove much of a challenge to finish. Group members who were very critical about the overuse of adjectives, similes and metaphors could visualise this narrative as a film because it almost reads like a screenplay with flowing visualisations and detailed descriptions of scenery. These fill the pages, but dilute the enjoyment of them. One member summed it up saying that we should not have to skip half a book to enjoy it.

Our average mark was 5.5/10

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Optimistic
It\\\\\\\'s only 600 miles... start walking

A surprise letter arrives for Harold Fry from Queenie Hennessy, a terminally ill friend from the past who wants to say goodbye. Going completely against his nature Harold makes a spontaneous decision to deliver a reply himself and starts walking to the hospice which is 600 miles away.
Maureen and Harold Fry live in isolation for most of the time. She is a tense and unyielding ‘neat freak’ whose cynicism and snide comments have helped to end the couple’s love for life and for each other. They fail miserably to communicate in anything else but snipes or unspoken criticisms and they are frustrated with each others’ imperfections. They have long since stopped sharing a bedroom.
It seems that neither of them is planning to make the most of their marriage and Maureen’s contempt holds no bounds for Harold’s sudden and totally unexpected impulse to literally wander off on his own. For many reasons she remains unconvinced that being committed, determined and motivated will earn her husband the help he needs to complete the mammoth challenge he has set himself.
Writing fiction about those who have become old before their time is a familiar concept and our reading group discussed how retirement from work is not always a smooth or painless transition. Following through to the end of Harold’s contorted navigation and a contrived ending, some of us might have dared to hope for the best for this ordinary, stuck-in-a-rut couple. To find a new direction in their lives would certainly mean major changes to Harold and Maureen’s decades-long habits and routines.
Not everyone liked the book and unfavourable comparisons were made with Jonas Jonasson’s fantasy: ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’. However, some agreed that the book was well written, especially for a first published novel and said it was easy to read.

Score 6/10

 
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Don't look here for stereo-typical images of blacks and whites

Larry Ott is a lonely man whose isolated life leaves him little more to do than methodically tend to his hens and turn up at his car workshop that rarely attracts customers. No evidence could put him behind bars, but the nearest community in a tiny hamlet of hottest, dustiest Mississippi has condemned and ostracised Larry the schoolboy for murdering Cindy Walker who was in his class.
Silas Jones, the local policeman, returned to the area after a long absence. Years after the alleged crime a body is found in a disused shack on Larry’s land, but it is another woman who has been murdered. The most likely suspect is in no position to provide an alibi; Larry Ott lies in a critical state in hospital having been shot in the chest by a masked intruder.
Everyone in our group who started this book finished it, despite the awkwardness of reading the colloquial language. Most agreed it was predictable and slow paced. We doubted that Silas would have kept his secret safe and this is what weakens the plot most. It felt like the author was unsure what type of book he was writing and that he added one final chapter too many.
We discussed how the main characters might not represent stereo-typical images in novels of blacks and whites of the 1980s in Southern America. A brief childhood friendship provokes the misgivings of their parents. Silas evolves into a popular and successful black retired sportsman now policeman, who has done well for himself despite his humble beginnings. White-skinned Larry, son of the owner of substantial amounts of land, is the ‘born victim’, friendless and fat, he grows old prematurely.
The book handles time changes poorly and this makes them confusing and disjointed. Many peripheral characters in the story seem twisted and unpleasant but only Wallace Stringfellow, who forces his company on the infamous Larry, contributes something memorable to the plot. If this violent weirdo had been born much earlier then he might have been a suspect for the murder of Cindy, himself.
One group member has spent time in the Mississippi and vouched for the authentic descriptions of the heat, dust and small town mentality. We may not be rushing out to buy other books by Tom Franklin, but it is tempting to read reviews of future books published to see if he moves on from this lacklustre imitation of the legacies left by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee.
Score 5.5/10

Scissors, Paper, Stone by Elizabeth Day
 
Frustrated? Angry? Change the furniture!

The reviews on the book’s cover give glowing testimonials to this journalist‘s first published novel. It does focus on the evocative and our reading group became quite animated during the review.
A slow start introduces the Redfern family. A spineless and down-trodden wife, Anne has evidently done little to nurture or protect her very troubled daughter, Charlotte. They have lived in fear and awe of the tyrannical and abusive, Charles. Their patriarch, conveniently, lies unconscious in bed and is very much at their mercy.
The dialogue between these disengaged women by his hospital sick bed shows no hint of any changes that might alleviate their dissatisfaction with their lives, or their relationships. Charlotte’s boyfriend Gabriel is the only character in the plot to develop and change. No one is particularly likeable or interesting. If Anne is truly worn down by submission she never really demonstrates her frustrations or anger, except when she changes the furniture. Whilst acknowledging that change is scary, we questioned why Anne had married and stayed with Charles. As a young woman she was supposedly both intelligent and very attractive. It might have been more easily understood if she had been just a ‘plain Jane’, like her loyal friend Janet who Charles despised.
There is no real build up, or increase in tension, just one unprecedented physical demonstration of frustration from Charlotte in the hospital and, even that, is futile. There is a distinct lack of drama and anguish and therefore little enticement for the reader to become involved in the women’s presumed misery and the background to it. We suggested an alternative ending could have given some clarity, possibly retribution, or at least more defiance than Anne changing the sofa that Charles loved.
The time changes are confusing and although it was most likely set in the 1990s there were indications of it being more recent. The likelihood of this being a true story was also suggested. Possibly the idea came during an interview with a victim of child abuse or mental cruelty.
Like a tortuous, never-ending game of ‘Paper, Scissors, Stone’, these unlikable family members attack each other and there is no winner.

 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Adventurous, Interesting
A steam-roller ride of adventures

Allan Karlsson, whose skills include creating Vodka out of goat’s milk and making an atom bomb, steals a suitcase at a bus station. This proves to be the catalyst for a steam-roller ride of adventures without fear of consequences, time limitations or financial constraints.
The repercussions of Allan’s vanishing from the party celebrating his hundredth birthday were combined with his well-timed recollections of the most amazing course of events. The switch from past to present was not confusing and the interludes from the present day adventures and misadventures, for the most part, fought off tedium This is one of a number of popular books that outline how elderly people who may have been ‘written off’ have unexpectedly broken free from an institutionalised existence and started afresh.
This reading group wondered if autism might explain how the main character is saved from the restrictions of morals, legality and conscience. For example when Allan settles into life in a frozen Russian internment camp it suits his limited needs well until he craves Vodka so much that he exploits another ‘window of opportunity’ and escapes, once again.
It was felt that the central themes, some involving historical events that were well researched, were a good basis for expressing the excess of political conspiracies and imbalances of world power during the last century. We mentioned how such changes of leadership would have affected our parents or grandparents. The author introduced us to wonderful and amusing characters and showed the idiosyncrasies of some notorious megalomaniacs. The stereotyping of ‘thick’ and infamous political leaders made us laugh.
None of us abandoned this long book with its long cast of characters. Some thought it should have been condensed during translation from its Swedish origins and some skipped about fifty of the final pages looking for a conclusion to this contemporary fairy tale.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Epic
Overuse of adjectives and a distinctly familiar plot

The idea of living as a maid for her aunt forces talentless and orphaned Francis to reconsider an unwelcome marriage proposal. She has been left impoverished after a life of privilege and idleness. On the way to her wedding and future life in Africa she falls in love with another man and suddenly her prospects look brighter.
‘The Fever Tree’ set mainly in South Africa in the late 1900s also outlines one man’s crusade against an impending smallpox epidemic. We were reminded of stories with other hellish locations and the menaces of disease. ’ The Painted Veil’, for instance, is a 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham that also follows a humanitarian British doctor in another doomed marriage and his fight against cholera in an isolated part of China.
Our group discussed Francis’ implausible instant transformation into an efficient housekeeper and her equally sudden changes of heart from love to hate. None of the main characters are likeable and this makes it a difficult book to get into. The only truly redeeming character in this spineless narrative seems to be Francis’ pet zebra.
Background on social divides of the era appears informed, but lengthy. Social commentary on living conditions for the rich in England and the poor in Africa described some of the dangers the workers faced to smuggle diamonds out of the mines and the management’s brutality if they were caught.
We talked about Francis’ predicament as a young, single woman without a dowry. The wealthy part of her family considered her lack of fortune a problem. They offered her to poorer relations who needed help, but Francis’ education never introduced her to housework or childcare. She was rendered virtually useless for work with a crippling inability to make do or improvise.
Some group members suggested that Francis might yet run away with a different doctor who can give her the future she anticipated as a child. Alternatively they could see a twist where Francis’ father’s investments recover and she heads to America to develop an independent life.
For the majority of our group this novel was quite enjoyable and an easy read, but ultimately it was very disappointing. It lacked that essential quality that would have made allowances for contrived romantic elements, overuse of adjectives and a distinctly familiar plot. Average score 6/10

This Is How It Ends: A Novel by Kathleen MacMahon
 
Difficult, Slow, Unconvincing
Looking for a cheerful read - this is not one for you

The story explores difficulties in a family relationship between two very different sisters (Della and Adie) and their father. It also looks at how Adie falls in love during a mid-life crisis. This is Kathleen MacMahon’s first published novel and it has been translated into twenty-five languages after a successful introduction at The London Book Fair 2011.

Della has four children so Adie, who is an out of work architect, ends up nursing their consultant father, Hugh, who has broken wrists and is awaiting the repercussions of a works tribunal. Hugh is unable to show his love for his Adie. Perhaps she reminds him of his deceased wife?

Bruno is from America and his life in finance has ground to an untimely halt when he arrives in the neighbourhood, following in his sister’s footsteps looking to form some family bonds in Ireland. After he ends up in Adie’s bed, regular updates on U.S. politics give the impression that Bruno is about to fly home any day if the right candidate wins the election.

Some members of our group really enjoyed the book. It offered them a pleasant distraction from real life. However even they agreed that it was an uninspired title to an uninspired book. It seems to offer little substance and no depth to most of the characters. Our main concern was whether Adie’s dog had actually died. If you are looking for a cheerful read then this is not one for you and most of us hoped there will not be a sequel.

We gave it an average 4/10

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Unconvincing, Interesting
An Unlikely Companionship

Alex Woods is a teenager who is accustomed to being bullied. His life is already complex as he shows signs of autism and then to compound his social awkwardness are the epileptic fits that begin after he is struck on the head by a meteorite.
Mr Peterson discovers Alex hiding from attackers and wrongly presumes that he is up to no good. A punishment; running errands, is enforced by Alex’s mother who does not play a supportive role at this time and an unlikely companionship develops between the men.
Alex’s is the ‘voice’ of the book and it matures from a boy’s to a man’s. Our group of readers felt he has undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. Clever at both maths and science he is unable to step out of line; he cannot lie even to protect himself against false accusations. We marvelled at how Alex evolves into such a capable 17 year old.
We were surprised to find it the subject of euthanasia was not more distressing or depressing. Alex struggles first to accept Mr Peterson’s deteriorating health and then he feels compelled to act on his friend’s wish to decide when the time is right for him to die.
This book has two distinct halves and could have been written for teenagers as it is an easy read with Alex as an interesting, geeky anti-hero. It begins with the meteorite incident and the schoolboy bullying that initiates Alex meeting Mr Peterson. It ends with the deterioration of Mr Peterson’s health and an emotive journey to Switzerland.

Average score 6/10

Close My Eyes by Sophie McKenzie
 
Unconvincing, Confusing, Dark
Despite its disjointedness quite a few of us liked it

‘What the hell was this book about?’ was one of the first responses in our group review of this tale of nature versus nurture and its successive character assassinations.
Eight years of pining for her dead new-born baby has left Gen distanced from her husband Art. He insists that a subsequent child via IVF treatment will solve all their problems. She never had the chance to hold or say goodbye to ‘Beth’ and the life-like dreams show their daughter maturing as the years pass.
It is easy to condemn the two-dimensional characters, the awkward and contrived character’s names and the implausible ‘accidental’ murders. However, since quite a few of us liked it and found it absorbing despite its disjointedness and most of us finished reading it, it must have appealed to us enough to want to learn about the young person writing in italics even if the main characters failed to gain any sympathy.
Some of us found the flashbacks difficult to set into a time frame and would not have identified who it was without it being made so obvious at the end. We discussed the difference between wanting to know the outcome and caring what happens.
The book is set in England and the names are presumably based on the King Arthur legends, but since the ‘voices’ are distinctly American it has evidently been aimed at readers from the U.S.A. Sophie McKenzie’s transition from a children’s book author to this level of sinister and unbelievable nonsense is very surprising.
One group member suggested a fitting sequel to this might be ‘I’ve had my eyes opened’ but many of us would not be rushing out see what she sees next.
Average score 5/10

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Informative
Changez's love of his own country was stronger than the love of America

Most of our reading group finished the book and we agreed that it was easy to read. We had a discussion on the meaning of the word Fundamentalist in the context of this book and thought that life was making Changez, the narrator, into something he did not want to be. He changed his attitude and his way of life during the story, going from a clean cut type of ‘All American’ boy, to growing a beard and appearing more Eastern.

Changez tells us that when he heard of the Twin Towers incident he smiled and from that time he seemed to change. It was thought that he might have realised his roots were calling to him and that the love of his own country was stronger than the love of America.
At the beginning Changez said that his bearing gave the stranger away as being American, although he was not really described, only what he was not. So he was stereotyped as an American. The American stranger was described by Changez as nervous, so possibly he was known by Changez. It seemed unlikely that such a nervous man would sit for so long in a street side coffee bar, with a man he had never met before.
Changez tells his story of his life in America to the nervous stranger. He is a brilliant student and goes onto make his career in the world of finance. He is in love with a girl called Erica, but she still loves her old boyfriend who died of cancer. Although she seemed fond of Changez, she could never really forget this boy. He is appreciated by his boss, Jim, who promotes him to work on various offshore assignments. It was suggested in our group that there may have been a hint of a gay relationship in the background, although this was not mentioned specifically by the author.
After September 11th attacks Changez finds that there is a sense of suspicion in the air and his treatment in public becomes different. He returns to New York without completing his final task for the company. He loses his job and with no reason for staying on in America, he moves back to Lahore. There he becomes a professor of finance and a mentor to various groups of students and from there he becomes involved in demonstrations together with the students.
At the end of the book we are still not sure of the future for any of the characters, why the waiter is so attentive, or if any of them is really a ‘bad guy’.

 
Book Club Recommended
Fun, Adventurous, Interesting
A bird was found on the doorstep, then the murdered man, Flavia decided to investigate

Most of us quite enjoyed this book, but it was felt that it was possibly aimed at the teenage market. Some felt that it was reminiscent of the Angela Brazil school stories. It was written by a man only two years ago and the response to it was very mixed ‘it was easy read / boring / difficult to remember and also peppered with Americanisms’.
When the bird was found on the doorstep, then the murdered man, Flavia decided to investigate. It seemed odd that Flavia was not even a little scared of a dead body. The book was set in 1950’s countryside, so she would have had much more freedom to wander than she would now. When her father was arrested for the murder, she hopped on her bike (Gladys) and took it on herself to investigate. She predictably kept one step in front of the police and solved the mystery.
The pie in the title seemed to have little to do with the crime even though it had a slice out of it and Flavia thought it could have been poisoned. The point was that the pie tasted so bad that none of the family would dream of eating it.
We felt the children well drawn and the loneliness of Flavia came across. There was much jealousy in the relationship between the sisters, as the other two girls had known their mother a little before she died. None of the children received much love from anywhere, although Flavia was friendly with Dogger, an old family retainer now a gardener and he kept an eye out for her. He had been damaged in the war and drifted into his own world at times. Flavia lived in her head a lot too, as she had no company. The book was predictable as was Flavia herself.
The mystery was in fact not very mysterious. Most of our number seemed to have favourite parts to quote and these tended to be amusing. Flavia was a strange child; she had this obsession with chemistry and was obviously very much more intelligent than her siblings. Her father was a stamp collector, which summed him up.
Flavia solved the mystery and her father was released from prison. He was not at all grateful and unfortunately nothing was going to change in their household as a result of the adventure.
Our marking for the book swung from 3 to 7 – 4 of us hated it, 4 loved it and the others were somewhere in between. We averaged out at 6 out of 10.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
 
Informative, Inspiring, Interesting
It never reaches a high level of interest or impact

Imagine finishing off a whole plateful of food and then being made aware that half of it has not been touched. Not only is this brain’s auto-pilot unable to process whatever appears to the left, but it cannot move the limbs on that side and the affected person will fall over if they stand up without care or assistance. This is a glimpse of coping with a brain condition called ‘Left Neglect’ (also known as Hemineglect, Unilateral spatial neglect, or Unilateral inattention and the book’s main character Sarah is affected by it after a major car accident. As it overturns her orderly world it forces her to re-assess priorities and the future.
Sarah is very proud of her career and achievements. She is a loving wife and doting mother; a coin in the mornings dictated whose hectic schedule would include dropping off their three children at school and the parent who did not have a meeting would collect them.
Post accident the seemingly helpless Sarah must re-assess her strengths. She must re-channel her determination to succeed; unless she can accept defeat in some directions of her life she will remain unable to do even the most basic things. Our readers likened the effects of ‘Left Neglect’ to being a ‘stroke’ victim or subject to an epidural. The idea of having no sensation or awareness of 50% of our boy and field vision was difficult to imagine.
Sarah is not likeable and that makes it difficult to sympathise with the couple as they struggle to come to terms with losing an exclusive lifestyle that they loved and had expected to maintain long-term. The author appears to be judgemental about women who choose a career and a family. Our group members observed that when children become less dependent, high earners could live and retire very comfortably.
Sarah’s mother is one of the more interesting people in the novel and it is unfortunate there is little focus on her depression. Her inability to support/nurture young Sarah appears to have been a catalyst in her daughter’s life choices. Having crumbled when her son drowned, she makes an unheralded reappearance at Sarah’s hospital bedside and her offers of help are rebutted at first and then become integral to the family’s survival.
This is an easy book to read and well written, and there is no doubt about the credibility of Lisa Genova’s background knowledge and research with a Ph.D in Neuroscience from Harvard University. The level of pathos, suffering or hardship never reaches a high level of interest or impact

 
Dark, Slow, Interesting
Theo\'s life experiences include drug taking, stealing and a lot of alcohol

Our group members generally agreed that although the start and the end of this novel proved enjoyable, it was rather confusing in the middle. This disjointedness might be explained by some of the characters disappearing early on and showing up again, quite unexpectedly, near the end.
There were many layers of the story and since this is a book with nearly 800 pages it took a lot of reading. One group member listened to this book on audio tape and found it very enjoyable. Most of us finished it.
The main character Theo Decker is a 13 year old whose mother has been blown up in an attack on a gallery they were visiting. Theo had been excluded from school and throughout the story he continues to blame himself for them being there on that day.
To compound these feelings of guilt there is the problem of his keeping hold of a little painting; the celebrated 1654 Carel Fabritius The Goldfinch, which under duress he takes home from the unstable ruins of the building. Theo spends much of his time and energy worrying about keeping it safe, presumably, because it is the only thing left to link him with his deceased mother.
Theo is given no option but to live with his estranged father and, during the next 14 years, he moves to a variety of places meeting a diverse group of people. Most of the characters are not very likeable and his life experiences include drug taking, stealing and a lot of alcohol. One good and steady influence on him, at the start at least, is the craftsman furniture restorer ‘Hobie’ who instigates Theo’s interest in buying and selling antiques.
Until the review some of our readers had not realised that this painting actually exists. The Goldfinch is only Donna Tartt’s third published book since 1992 and it won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Perhaps the bird’s symbolism of resurrection better reflects her life than that of Theo Decker?

 
Book Club Recommended
Optimistic, Fun, Interesting
‘Cinderella for grown-ups’

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, who begins her day desperate for work and in pursuit of what she presumes will be just another demanding position as Nanny, very soon finds herself completely out of her depth and loving every minute of it.
Judging her best course of action to tell the truth Miss Pettigrew counsels her sophisticated prospective new employer, nightclub singer Miss LaFosse and her lady visitors, using common sense and giving them an insight into her own morality. This proves very popular and surprisingly useful to the ladies who initially appear very worldly until they show their vulnerability.
Miss LaFosse leads an ambitious and unstable existence using drugs to keep her sanity and relies on the patronage of a nightclub manager who is a wealthy and powerful man. Miss Pettigrew has very little experience of life, knows nothing about romance or the entertainment business, but somehow manages to save the day.
Our reading group liked the 1920s’ setting for the book and appreciated the daring antics of the ladies. Despite all the excitement and an engaging plot, we felt it was a bit predictable in places. The structure of the book was clever with the chapters being divided into timed slots.
Most of the main characters were likeable although we predicted that Miss LaFosse would eventually go back to her old ways.
The question was raised ‘who was this book written for?’ as we wondered about the author and whether she had the same background as any of the characters.
A film with the same title was made in 2008 and will have given this amusing fairytale another new audience.
This ‘Cinderella for grown-ups’ story was first published in 1938 and this was a facsimile of the original edition that included the amusing black and white illustrations. Our group's average was 6 out of 10.

Mr Rosenblums List by Natasha Solomons
 
Boring, Unconvincing, Pointless
Other books might be more useful for asylum seekers!

This was a book that inspired one of our readers to research online about British ‘woolly pigs’ in Wiltshire. For a narrative about a wartime refugee, who is struggling with the concept of xenophobia, that is not a classic recommendation.
It was a refreshing synopsis for the story; Mr Jack Rosenblum, a Jewish man who flees his home in wartime Germany and so desperately wants to assimilate into British society that he moves to the middle of nowhere to pursue his plans to build a classic golf course. The list, in the title, is given to refugees as a guide to ‘Englishness’ and it becomes Mr Rosenblum’s bible and mantra despite the misgivings of his long-suffering wife, Sadie and their daughter, Elizabeth.
Jack Rosenblum is, without doubt, one of the stupidest men our reading group has encountered. This is a successful businessman, the founder and owner of a London-based carpet manufacturer who invests in a country cottage without ever seeing it, writes a succession of invitations/letters to someone who never answers them and is regularly made to look foolish by locals who are canny about ways to make this heavily-accented stranger lighten the wad in his wallet.
Initially his one redeeming quality is his stamina, particularly during the early stages of creating the golf course. His tenacity, however, is also undeniable and unfortunately spurred on his obsessional behaviour. We were curious to know where his seemingly endless cash flow originated (although we acknowledged that buying Sadie golf clubs nearly bankrupted him at one stage.)
One of our readers mentioned that on the ‘Kindle’ version the notes at the back of the hard copy are missing and these introduce the author’s own family wartime history (also the source for her recipe information) and the essential point that the list was, in fact, genuine. With or without this knowledge the book, for the majority of our readers, was not that funny, or interesting and was therefore a disappointment.
Selling under a variety of names and in a choice of languages; ‘Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English’ and ‘The Perfect Gentleman’, this is far from unique in its treatment of cultural assimilation and there are other books that might be more useful for asylum seekers. Our average score was 5.5 out of 10

The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Unconvincing, Interesting
Has many unanswered questions

Exploring greed, intolerance and the importance of maintaining a veneer of respectability, this story set in the seventeenth century also has underlying issues of class structure, racism and homophobia.
The main character is Petronella (known as ‘Nella’) who marries merchant Johannes and moves to Amsterdam to live with him and his sister. Marin, who is used to being the mistress of the house, is far from friendly towards the new arrival. She and the servants Dutch Cornelia and black (former slave) Otto appear to be constantly watching and criticising the young new wife.
As the book continues Nella’s spirit and resolve strengthen whereas her sister-in-law’s weaken. It emerges late in the story that it was Marin’s insistence that made Johannes marry and this makes it surprising that she does nothing to make the girl feel more welcome or part of her new family. The characters are well described and it easy to picture them. When Otto disappears Cornelia finally becomes more forthcoming and when major complications appear in their lives she becomes indispensible and much more like a friend. Although Nella is naive and unworldly, she appears to cope remarkably well with the severe cold of Amsterdam winters and her complex new life.
Johannes is not the ideal husband he appears to be. At first, his business thrives, but when he becomes infatuated with a young man he loses all interest in work and money. He neglects his commitments to the household members and a whole warehouse of precious sugar that needs to be sold before it is damp and rotten.
Our readers waited in anticipation of discovering the identity of the miniaturist, the source of her personal minutiae of her patrons’ lives and the motivation for her interferences. The references to the talented and reclusive model maker are actually rare. There are many unanswered questions posed in the narrative so it was assumed that these will fuel a follow-up novel.
This was a complex review to write because the responses to it varied so drastically amongst our group members. Most finished and enjoyed the book, despite a slow, labouring start for some and a few saying that the whole thing lacked intrigue and was disappointingly weak. The average score was 7 out of 10.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden: A Novel by Jonas Jonasson, Rachel Willson-Broyles
 
Pointless, Confusing, Unconvincing
Less interesting than the latrines of Soweto

At the start of this crazy farce we are introduced to a latrine cleaner from Soweto in South Africa. This young lady, Nombeko, has natural leadership skills that fuel her ambitions and offer her way out of the township’s slums.
There are many less interesting characters in the plot including the twins who are both called Holger. It was felt that the eldest twin would not have been missed by any of our group members if he had been killed off in early childhood.
A written slapstick comedy only comes alive if the plot and the humour work. The mix of factual but hard to believe historic information, alongside the poisoning of dogs to effect an escape and a fragmented storyline did not make it a memorable or enjoyable read. Perhaps in its original language this might have been a better book.
Jonas Jonasson has made himself a name in Sweden as a journalist, consultant in the world of media and he also produces television programmes. A previous review by our group offered 7 out of 10 for his first book and best seller, ‘The Hundred Year Old Man who climbed out of the window and disappeared’. With this, his second book which is similar in some ways, we were not so generous with our praise. We only gave it 4 out 10.

 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Boring, Epic
Most agreed that it was a compelling read

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice... because he was the
instrument of my mother’s death... I am a Christian because of Owen Meany”

It is 1953 and this is John’s story and part of it explains how his best friend knocks out his mother with an errand baseball hit that kills her. Somehow, despite her tragic and untimely demise, the eleven-year-olds remain best friends for life and the plot becomes progressively more complex.
Some of us were interested in finding out more about the narrator, John. Despite everything, he remains good friends with Owen Meany who is such a strange child and adult. Owen is not an easy character to visualise and his appearance and the way he speaks are significant to the story. Some also found the writing of Owen’s speech in capitals became irritating.
Some of our members found the time frames in the book very confusing. They felt that the narrative travels back and forth in time and it is not always obvious or well explained. Other distractions they mentioned were the religious aspects and the historical content which seemed irrelevant until the end.
It is a long book and the majority of our book club members finished reading it. Some of us did say that it was ‘hard-going’ at first. Our response to it was a split of opinions, but most agreed that it was a compelling read, albeit overlong.
The average score was 6 out of 10.

Alice and the Fly by James Rice
 
Unconvincing, Gloomy, Difficult
The explicit and violent parts were unexpected

Our book club had quite a wide diversity of views on this book with some really enjoying it and others finding it unmemorable. The explicit and violent parts were unexpected on the whole and felt to be unnecessary.

The inconsistent style of writing made it confusing and although the story was intense the main characters Greg and Alice were stereotypical and unbelievable. Their families are dysfunctional and every one of them has their own demons to fight.
Greg’s father is a plastic surgeon who escapes from everyday reality into the arms of his secretary. By studying x-rays of breast tissue at the kitchen table he can drown out the voice of his wife fully outlining her next majorly expensive decorating project, or pretend not to notice the meal has been exactly same and inedible for a week while she perfects her next dinner party menu.

Alice’s father is a butcher and Greg works in his shop. It is left to the imagination what awful things Alice has to endure at home, but it seemed clear that the relationship between her and her father was abusive. When Greg starts to spy on her at home it does not take him long to form his own damning conclusions.

Greg’s mental health instability seems to resemble epilepsy more than the diagnosed schizophrenia. We found it surprising that he was allowed so much freedom in spite of it. He is basically labelled a ‘Psycho’ by his schoolmates and his family who either ignore him or plead with him to be ‘normal’. He is allowed to travel to school and is left to get on with school life since he is academically sound, except a well-meaning teacher tries unsuccessfully to provide some help. This takes the form of after school talking sessions – “psychotherapy” for which she is not qualified.

There is a police transcript that explains a major incident through the responses of the different characters in the story. Without this most of the group’s readers said they would have struggled to finish the book. We wondered if its target audience who we thought might be young adults might have enjoyed it more than most of us did.

Average score 5/10

A Parcel for Anna Browne by Miranda Dickinson
 
Unconvincing, Romantic, Slow
Not our cup of tea

A benefactor with seemingly psychic empathy starts sending Anna Browne, a conscientious and introverted receptionist, luxurious gifts. Predictably, receiving anonymous parcels has mixed blessings and despite initially feeling good about being in the limelight, there are skeletons that Anna would rather leave in the closet.

Early on, and still with about 350 pages to go, most of our reading group had guessed the identity of the mystery philanthropist. We discussed the height of modern reception desks in London’s towering office blocks and agreed that the staff behind them were rarely visible enough that you could spot a new brooch at twenty paces. Anna’s friendly colleagues seem uncharacteristically fascinated by her appearance and each new addition from the parcels.

Most of us felt there were just too many presents and the formulaic plot just became sillier and sillier. Anna’s workmates just seemed to be asking too many questions about the packages to make this realistic.

This was an easy-to-read, unmemorable adult fairy story. We wondered if all this successful author’s books were like this one – harmless ‘chick lit’ where the main character goes from mousey to mouthy in 500 pages.

Average score 4/10

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