University of the Third Age 


Home ] Book Reviews ]

2010 Book Reviews

“Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons – January 2010  

The book discussed in January was “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons published in 1932 when the author was 30.  As usual members of the group expressed diverse opinions though all seemed to agree that it was a very interesting and enjoyable read, containing a wealth of strange characters and situations.  

Cold Comfort Farm is situated in Sussex and had “always” been in the passion of the Starkadder family and among the present incumbents are Seth, Ruben, Amos and URK, all presided over by Aunt Ada Doom who famously “saw something nasty in the woodshed”.  

A distant relative, Flora Poste, comes to stay and proceeds to make sweeping changes to their primitive life style, handsome Seth goes to Hollywood , religious Amos goes on a preaching tour.  Nothing stays the same.  It is a charming fairy story with a quirky ending.  

Ann Blackbeard

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – February 2010  

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Costa Book of the Year 2008) drew a mixed response from members of the Book Group at the February meeting. “A wonderful and moving book.” “Not my kind of book.” “Lyrical and poetic.” “Depressing.”  Most people, however, finished the book though some found the surprise ending unconvincing.   

Set against the background of political and social unrest in twentieth century Ireland the story of Roseanne McNulty’s incarceration in a mental hospital is related partly through her own testimony and the report and case notes of her psychiatrist Dr. Grene. The tragic events of one hundred year old Roseanne’s life reflect the upheaval in the country and are recounted in a poetic and lyrical style. Dr. Grene’s account is cooler and more dispassionate, yet as he begins to discover the circumstances of her admission to the hospital the more involved he becomes in her story. This leads him to uncovering a shocking secret……..  

Most group members preferred Roseanne’s poetic account to that of Dr. Grene and were shocked by the cruelty of her treatment and the system, which allowed this to happen. While some found the novel depressing and harrowing others felt that it was a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. All agreed that it is a moving and beautifully written book.  

Ros McGonagle

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – March 2010

We discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins at our March meeting.  The Moonstone was published 1868 and was serialised in Charles Dickens weekly magazine. 

The Moonstone is widely regarded as the first modern mystery and suspense novels. T. S. Eliot called it "the first and the best of modern English detective novels ", and Dorothy L. Sayers described it as "probably the very finest detective story ever written".  It contains a number of ideas that later became classic features of the twentieth-century detective story:

·        English country house robbery

·        An "inside job"

·        red herrings

·        A celebrated, skilled, professional investigator

·        Bungling local constabulary

·        Detective enquiries

·        Large number of false suspects

·        The "least likely suspect"

·        A rudimentary "locked room" murder

·        A reconstruction of the crime

·        A final twist in the plot

Franklin Blake, the gifted amateur who eventually solves the mystery, is the first example of the gentleman detective.

The novel was very popular with the group and is probably the first book we have read that everybody enjoyed.  

Andy Moir

“Half of a Golden Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – April 2010  

This month our choice of “Half of a Golden Sun” caused great discussion and differences of opinion.  

The book, the second by the young Nigerian women, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proved to be rather different from her previous work “The Purple Hibiscus”.  

The theme of the novel is the Biafran conflict and its suppression by the north i.e. Nigeria .  

The story, from the viewpoint of the Biafran, the Igbo, pronounced Ibo, people told of the hunger, starvation and complete brutality of the civil war.  

The Igbo were the considered intellectuals and the better educated. The Igbo because of the coastline had been open to the arrival of Christian missionaries while in the north, i.e. Nigeria , the Hausa were Muslims.  The Hausa and the Yoruba were united against the Igbo, claiming that they held all the important jobs and positions.  

The writing, for me, was most descriptive – the poverty, cruelty and desperation were only too real. However the sounds and smells, both pleasant and unpleasant were more than real.  The characters, on the other hand, were stilted and unbelievable.  The men, in particular, were shallow and stereotyped.  

Nevertheless the book was a good, if somewhat sombre read. The futility of war, the horror of civil war and the seeming indifference to their plight by the world was also in evidence, while the complete certainty of victory sustained the Igbo.  

The group remembered the Biafran conflict with great clarity, television bringing the horror and suffering into our sitting rooms in the late sixties  -  Ethnic cleansing in action!  

Sheena Fraser

“The City of the Beasts” by Isabel Allende – May 2010 

At our meeting in May to discuss “The City of the Beasts” by Isabel Allende all grandparents agreed:  the grandmother Kate in this book is extremely unpleasant and irresponsible, certainly not the best person to accompany her 15-year-old grandson on a perilous mission into the Amazonian jungle.  But once the adventure gets underway and because Isabel Allende is writing the story, things soon get magical.  Book group members were divided in their reaction to this – does the magical fantasy add to or detract from the main story, which is about the very real plight of the indigenous people of the Amazon, as well as a youngster’s development from confused teen to responsible young man? 

 Group members who hadn’t read any Isabel Allende before said that they would certainly read more.  Those more familiar with her work expressed some disappointment, bearing in mind it was written for a younger audience, with a relatively simple plot and black-and-white characters.  The young romance featured in the story was considered by one member to have ‘a hint of Mills & Boon’, which made a lot of sense because earlier in her writing career, Allende had a job translating romance novels by Barbara Cartland into Spanish.  However, Allende was fired for making unauthorized changes to make the heroines more intelligent and determined to be more independent.

 “The City of the Beasts” sparked off a lively discussion and exchange of views.  The book transported us to the conditions of the Amazon so convincingly that some expressed discomfort at the idea of not being able to wash properly, others at the diet of boiled monkey, showing how Allende succeeded in depicting realistically the difficult, hot and humid conditions that provided the setting to a fantastical journey. 

 The inevitable clash of value systems is also a theme, and led to some very interesting personal accounts of hosting people from other cultures.  We loved hearing about the young Mexican and the young Balinese women, who took over different group members’ kitchens for the duration of their stay, producing delicious authentic meals every night.  Also the African visitor who found her hostess’s knitting during one of her nightly prowls round the house, and was discovered in the morning plain knitting assiduously through what was intended to be quite a complicated pattern.

 Jenny Moir


Rumpole and the Reign of Terror” by John Mortimer – June 2010

This month's book was Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer which is part of the series of Rumpole of the Bailey books by the same author. A TV series was also made from the books.  The hero of the book is Horace Rumpole a criminal defence barrister who vehemently believes in the Rule of Law, Magna Carta and trial by jury.

The plot of the book concerns Dr. Khan, a Pakistani doctor, who had been accused by the authorities of terrorism, albeit with fabricated evidence and was unable to clear his name as he was imprisoned without trial and without his defence team ie Rumpole being given any evidence to fight the charges. The 'evidence' had been provided by a spurned lover who, by coincidence, happened to be a member of the criminal Timson family who had provided Rumpole with a steady income for many years.

The only way forward was for the Home Secretary to be 'convinced' by Rumpole that a trial was the proper course of action which he was able to do when Rumpole discovered information about the Home Secretary's past which would have destroyed the politician's career had it been made public. Rumpole agreed to keep this information secret in return for a fair trial.

The subplot to the book was that Judge Bullingham(nicknamed 'Mad Bull' by Rumpole) had taken a fancy to Hilda Rumpole (She Who Must Be Obeyed) and was wining and dining her , hoping one day to prise her away from her husband. At the same time Hilda was writing her memoirs in the box room which caused considerable consternation to Rumpole. The courtroom scene enabled Rumpole to display his talents as an expert in cross-examination and Dr. Khan was, of course, found not guilty. 

The author is openly anti Tony Blair and his government's decision to incarcerate alleged terrorists without trial and the introduction of Asbo's that criminalised many thousands of people again without trial.  The group generally found the book an entertaining and easy book to read which dealt with a very serious subject in a humorous manner. Although it was an unlikely tale and contained many coincidences, it did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. Some members did wonderif blackmail of the Home Secretary was the correct course of action for a barrister to take in order to obtain his Client's rights or does the ends justify the means?

John Raynham

Digging to America” by Anne Tyler – July 2010

The book group met on Monday 19 July to discuss Digging to America by Anne Tyler.

The Digging to America is a story set in Baltimore , Maryland and starts with the Donaldson and the Yazdan families who meet at the airport while they are waiting for the delayed flight from Korea bringing their infant adopted daughters.

The two families keep in touch and have many parties and get togethers which are described in great detail.  Sometimes there was too much detail and it was best to skim over some parts of the book. Some members felt that the book was tedious in places especially the binkies (dummies) saga and some felt the second half of the book was better than the first.

The dialogue between Maryam and Dave made the book more interesting particularly at the end of chapter 7. There is some humour in the book for example when Maryam gets her cycle helmet stuck and when Maryam was talking about Dave and why she turned down his marriage proposal!

Two of our members, Jenny and Andy lived in Detroit for five years and regaled some of the cultural differences including lack of sidewalks, Americans love of celebrations with outfits to match and always with a cake, overfriendliness and bossiness and their conviction they always know best! 

The book in places was enjoyable because Anne Tyler is very good at making her characters come alive so you can really feel their emotions.

Kay Raynham  

Joy in the Morning” by PG Wodehouse – August 2010

The book this month was Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse who was a prolific novelist, playwright and lyricist. During his writing career of over 70 years he wrote 96 books, 15 plays and the lyrics for 250 songs. Joy in the Morning managed to produce polarised comments from the group and whilst for the majority it was a highly entertaining, humorous and light- hearted read, the minority found it difficult even to finish the book.  

This book, in a series of books involving the two main characters Jeeves and Wooster , is set in the 1930’s. Bertie Wooster is a dim but wealthy socialite and his manservant Jeeves who is far brighter than his master. Jeeves is educated in many fields including the Classics and literature and manages to extricate Bertie from the series of scrapes he finds himself in.  

The plot involves Bertie and Jeeves visiting Steeple Bumpleigh, the home of fearsome Aunt Agatha and her husband Uncle Percy, to assist Boko Fittlestone in his attempts to marry ‘Nobby’ Hopwood. At the same time Bertie requires help from Nobby to extricate himself from his liaison with Florence Craye. Edwin, Agatha’s youngest child causes mayhem whilst ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright endeavours to arrest Bertie. The story, of course, descends into farce with a happy ending.  

Although the book was set in the 1930’s and was published in 1947, Wodehouse’s command of the English language and his comedic talents made it an enjoyable read today.

John Raynham

Dissolution” by SJ Sansom – September 2010

The book group met on Monday 20th September to discuss “Dissolution” by C. J. Sansom. “Dissolution” is a story set in 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066.  Henry VIII had proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and under the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister, a team of commissioners was sent throughout the country to investigate the monasteries.  Their aim was to close the monasteries and transfer their wealth to the King.

 On the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events had spiralled out of control. Cromwell's commissioner had been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder was accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege and the disappearance of Scarnsea's Great Relic.  Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, was sent by Cromwell to discover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea.

The members of group thoroughly enjoyed the book and thought that it captured the atmosphere of the turbulent times particularly in the monasteries extremely well.  People thought that it painted a vivid picture of both the harsh physical environment in which people lived and the atmosphere of fear that people lived under.  People particularly liked the author’s use of archaic phrases and language to add authenticity to the story and the use of weather to set the atmosphere of foreboding and threat.  The group thought that whilst the book was very successful as an historical novel, enabling us to imagine what it must have been like to live in those times, it was less successful as a murder mystery. 

“Dissolution” was one of the most popular books that we have read and a number of members are reading or intending to read some of the other four books written by C. J. Sansom which are set in the 16th century and feature Matthew Shardlake the hunchbacked lawyer.

Andy Moir 


Testimony” by Anita Shreve – October 2010

The book group met on Monday 18th October to discuss “Testimony” by Anita Shreve.  “Testimony” is set in a Vermont private boarding school where a sex scandal is about to break.   The headmaster is given a video tape which shows a drunken encounter between three male students aged between 17 and 19 and one female student who is just 14 which makes the boys' actions sexual assault according to the laws of the State of Vermont .

 The headmaster tries to deal with the matter internally but it escalates beyond his control: the police are called, careers are destroyed, marriages are ended, lives unravel and one of the teenage boys dies.  Anita Shreve tells the story from the points of view of everyone involved directly or tangentially in the tragedy and these accounts detail the ways in which lives can be derailed or destroyed in one foolish moment.

 Opinions amongst the members of group were very mixed from members who really disliked it; others who were ambivalent about the book to some who found it an interesting and compelling read.  We all agreed that the explicit nature of the first chapter was rather a shock.  Opinions on the effectiveness of the way the author told the story from different points of view were mixed and all agreed that the girl at the heart of events is underdeveloped in comparison with the male characters.

 However in spite of our many reservations the book lead to a lively and interesting discussion about the issues involved.

Andy Moir


Nation” by Terry Pratchett – November 2010


The Book Group met on Monday 15th November to discuss “Nation” by Terry Pratchett.  Nation is different from the majority of Terry Pratchett’s  books in two ways.  It is not part of his ‘Disc World’ science fiction series and it is written primarily for young adults.  The group discussed its genre and decided it was a fantasy novel.


The action takes place on a small Pacific island in a parallel version of the 19th Century.  Mau is a young boy who is just completing his ‘rite-of-passage’ journey when the whole island is swept by a tsunami leaving him the sole survivor of his tribe.  The only other person alive is Daphne, a primly brought up English girl whose ship has been carried onto the island by the same wave. 


There are a series of comic misunderstandings caused by the limited communication and totally different backgrounds of the boy and girl but they are forced to confront a range of problems as groups of refugees arrive on the island desperate for food, shelter and medical aid.   Daphne supports Mau as he becomes the leader of the new Nation and both of them have to face many unfamiliar situations which require them to show great courage and develop new skills.  They begin to question their deeply held beliefs and cultural values


Terry Pratchett tells the story with humour and great sympathy for his leading characters but his humanist and scientific views are quite strongly expressed as the story progresses.


Only a few members of the reading group had previously read any of this well known and popular author’s work and most were pleased to have been encouraged to read a book by him.  However, the general opinion of this group was negative with some members admitting that they had not enjoyed Nation enough to finish reading it and most stated that they would not choose to read anything else by Terry Pratchett.


Several group members enjoyed the humour of the early parts of the story, others commented on descriptive passages which they found poetic and found the innocence of the two young people charming.  They found their characters well drawn while the villains in the story were ‘really bad baddies’.


It seems that if you do not enjoy reading Science Fiction then this type of Fantasy novel set in a parallel universe is probably not for you.


Clare Allen


This page last edited on 29 November 2010