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2011 Book Reviews

“A Secret Alchemy” by Emma Darwin – January 2011  

A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin is an intriguing novel set partly in recent times and partly during the time of the Wars of the Roses. The contemporary story is centred on Una Pryor, recently returned to London from Australia and still grieving the loss of her husband. While winding up her family affairs in London she becomes involved in dealing with the future of the family printing house and the conflicting wishes of different family members. The historical aspect centres on the story of Anthony, Earl Rivers and his sister, Elizabeth Woodville. She was the wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes, nephews of Richard III, who were murdered in the tower. Una, an academic is researching Elizabeth and Anthony’s books. This provides the link between the two strands of the novel. Darwin interleaves the themes of bereavement, secrecy, lost love betrayal and rivalry through the late medieval tale and the modern day account.

  Darwin handles the difficult feat of moving between past and present skilfully though some readers found this aspect of the novel confusing and irritating. Others thought that each aspect illuminated the other. Some group members felt that she conjured up the atmosphere of the late medieval world convincingly, others, especially the historians in the group disagreed. The provision of a time line for the historical aspect helped considerably, though some readers thought that this did not start sufficiently early in the historical period. In the large print version this was not provided, rather a serious omission in such a novel. There was an interesting debate about the accuracy of some historical facts and the rather positive portrayal of Elizabeth . Other accounts of her are not so kind. Some thought that greater historical accuracy was needed while others viewed this is as a fiction, set partly at a particular period in history rather than attempt at a factual account.

There was a duality about the group’s responses, mirroring the duality in the novel, some enjoying it as a tale well told, others irritated by the time switches and the lack of historical accuracy. This novel certainly engendered some lively debate and discussion.

Ros McGonagle

 "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama – February 2011 

“Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” , a memoir by United States President, Barack Obama, was the book discussed by the Book Club at its meeting on 21 February. It was published in July 1995, when Obama was still only 33, a young age for an autobiography. In fact, the account finishes even earlier, when Obama was 26 and was shortly to enrol at the Harvard Law School . In 1990 Obama was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. This led to the suggestion that he should write his personal story. The narrative covers three periods in Obama’s life: his birth and education; his social work as a Community Organiser in inner Chicago ; and his visit to relatives in Kenya .

Obama was born on 4 August 1961in Honolulu, Hawaii. His parents were Barack Obama Sr., a black Kenyan, and Ann Dunham of Wichita, Kansas, a white American of mostly English descent. They had met as students at the University of Hawaii. They married in 1961, separated when Obama was 2 and divorced in 1964. Obama's father returned to Kenya and Obama saw him only once more, in 1971, when Obama was 10, when Obama Sr. came to Hawaii for a month's visit, a visit that the young Obama found confusing and disruptive. Obama Sr. died in a car accident in 1982, aged 46.

In 1967 Obama’s mother married Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia. The family moved to Jakarta, where Lolo proved a very conscientious step-father to Obama. In 1971, Obama was sent back to Honolulu under the care initially of his maternal grandparents then, from the following year of his mother, for the better educational opportunities there. He was enrolled in a prestigious private school, where he was one of only six black students at the mostly white school.

Upon finishing high school, Obama moved to Los Angeles  and enrolled at Occidental College, where he describes living a "party" life-style of smoking, drug and alcohol use After two years at Occidental, he transferred to Columbia College at Columbia University, in Manhattan, New York City, where he majored in political science.  

The second period of his life described by Obama is that following his graduation. He moved to Chicago , an unknown city for him, to confront issues of race and poverty as a Community Organiser. He worked for a non-profit community  on a public housing project on the city's South Side. Obama recounts the difficulties as his ‘program’ faced resistance from entrenched community leaders and apathy on the part of the established bureaucracy. However, he had his successes and his commitment and persistence in trying to help a disadvantaged community were impressive. It was during this time that Obama first visited Chicago 's Trinity United Church of Christ, where he met Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., who hit the headlines later during Obama’s Presidential campaign.

 After three years in Chicago , Obama decided that it would help him in this work if he had a legal qualification and he succeeded in obtaining a place at Harvard Law School . He decided, however, before he went to Harvard to make his first visit to Kenya to investigate further his father’s background and origins. He met his paternal grandmother, his paternal half siblings and numerous other relatives, all of whom warmly welcomed him ‘home’ to Kenya . Some aspects of his visit to Kenya , such as the poverty, came as a shock to Obama. However, his visit also gave him a sense that the work he was doing was directly connected to his Kenyan family and their struggles. He said that the visit helped unify his outer self with his inner self in an important way.

The Book Club members felt that Obama came across well - as a good person, pleasant, hard-working and very committed to his work. However, it was also commented that there was not much evidence of humour; that he seemed quite parochial - there was little indication of interest or concern in wider, world issues (a marked contrast to the present time); and that, especially early on, he seemed very self-absorbed and not particularly at ease with himself and others– possibly because of his unusual background and because he was reflecting a great deal on his own personal experiences with race and race relations in the United States.

His book was extremely well-written, and very detailed, frank and personal, so much so that Obama had to change some names to protect people’s identities. The overall view of Book Club members was that they had found the book both enjoyable and interesting. Some would like it to have covered a longer period of time, certainly to have included Obama’s student days at Harvard. A number have been encouraged to go on and read Obama’s later book, “The Audacity of Hope”. In due course Obama will no doubt write his account of his presidential campaign or campaigns and his term or terms of Presidential office – that should be a very interesting read indeed!

Robert Charleston 


‘Jane and Prudence’ by Barbara Pym - March 2011

There was a mixed response, from lukewarm to very enthusiastic, to ‘Jane and Prudence’ by Barbara Pym, but the book also stimulated a lively sharing of ideas and experiences.  It was published in 1953 and focuses on the lives of the two main female characters in post-war England .  This led to a fascinating sharing of memories of that time – food rationing, the fashions and the formality of social exchanges – no first names at work in those days!  

The character Prudence was considered in the book to be ‘on the shelf’ at 29 – unheard of now – and we commented upon how much women’s lives have changed.  Everyone agreed that prospective readers should not be put off by the cover or misled by Jilly Cooper’s name on the front since she wrote the introduction but not the book.  The book is a non-racy, easy, quick read, which we all finished and several members said that they would read another book by Barbara Pym.  

Jenny Moir

‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J D Salinger - April 2011

The Catcher in the Rye , choice of the month for the Book Club, was met with many mixed views.  Several members had read it before, albeit in their youth and it was interesting to hear how it stood up to the passage of time.

The book was either liked or disliked - about 50:50 it seems. One reader thought it was written before its time and others could not work out what exactly was wrong with the hero.

The boy was obviously disturbed but when the book was written the condition had not been diagnosed. I feel it was much more than teenage angst. The hero was very hard to like and the swearing got a bit boring after a while.

The story which took place over three days was simply written, with glimmers of insight appearing.

All of us agreed we were glad to have read it and everyone finished it but Salinger did not win any hearts. 

None of us could speak from experience of Boarding School and his experienced difficulties sprang from the hero himself.

Sheena Fraser 

‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy - May 2011


This month we read ‘ Small Island ‘ by Andrea Levy, a novel set in Jamaica , England , Burma and India during WWII and 1948.  The book won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2004.  Key moments of history are seen here through the eyes of four characters, two from Jamaica and two from England .  

The majority of the group enjoyed the book and the use of the parallel narratives of the four main characters, who, it was felt, are well-drawn, although opinions diverged as to their likeability.  For example, one member wanted to slap Hortense while others leapt to her defence.  

The themes of War and Racism brought back memories, not all of them comfortable as group members remembered with a sense of shame at the way the West Indian immigrants had been treated.  Those who had seen the TV series felt that the book offers much more, especially in the coverage of these themes.  

There were particularly lively contributions about the ending, with most feeling that the baby’s adoption was the only viable solution.  Our new member hadn’t had the book long, but vowed to continue reading and finish what the rest of us had mostly found an interesting, well-written read.  

Jenny Moir

‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin - June 2011

Is the novel ‘ Brooklyn ’ by Colm Tóibín deeply subtle or too light and fluffy?  Is it boring or compelling?  Does the author have a way with words or is his style stilted and annoying?  Is the main character Eilis (pronounced Eye-lish) infuriatingly opaque or a masterly portrayal of someone brought up to follow the Irish dictum, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’?  

All these opinions and many others were expressed at our June meeting, leading to a lively discussion about this story of a young Irishwoman’s emigration to New York .  The book won the 2010 Costa Novel Award and also includes other favourite Tóibín themes: Irish society, family relationships and personal identity.  

We all agreed on one thing – the book was a quick read, and most group members did feel, however grudgingly, that they got something out of it.  One identified with Eilis’ retail experience and another felt that the depiction of Irish provincial life in the early 1950’s was spot on.  

As last month, the ending sparked off the most animated exchange of views.  We had to agree to differ about whether Eilis’ behaviour was just a bit flighty, totally morally reprehensible or an example of identity confusion.  We look forward to our meetings, where everyone has their say, with every shade of opinion represented.

Jenny Moir

‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot - August 2011

At our August meeting the Book Group discussed Middlemarch by George Eliot; Middlemarch is a very long and thoughtful novel so we had two months to read it. 

The novel Middlemarch, subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life," was published in 1871 and is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during the period 1830–32. It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic (with the authors voice occasionally appearing in the narrative), and the scope is very broad.  

As usual with our group we had a very lively discussion with some very varied opinions on the novel.   Some people didn’t finish the novel because of its length and slow pace but most of those who did finish reading the novel enjoyed it and found it a riveting and interesting read.  We had a particularly animated discussion on one of the characters, Casaubon, where the group was divided by gender with the men feeling sympathetic to him whilst the women strongly disliked him!  

As usual it was a lively and enjoyable meeting.

Andy Moir

Essex Poetry Festival September 2011

Our September meeting was different to our usual monthly meetings because we didn’t discuss a book that we had all read.  Instead as part of the Essex Poetry Festival a local poet, Tim Cunningham, attended the meeting and read us some of his poems. 

Tim Cunningham grew up in Limerick in  the Republic of Ireland but has lived in Billericay for many years.

As well as reading us a number of his poems Tim Cunningham explained what inspired him to write the poems.   One poem I particularly enjoyed was inspired by him seeing a blind man and his guide dog at a London Station.  



From the ticket office

To the stairs

The labrador 

Confidently guides


Then at the escalator top

The blind man 

Gathers up his dog 

Like irises 


We also had a lively and interesting discussion and as usual it was a stimulating and enjoyable meeting.   Andy Moir   


‘The Island’ by Victoria Hislop - October 2011

Our book of choice for October was “The Island” by Victoria Hislop, wife of Ian Hislop. This was her first novel and received much acclaim.  

The tale covered the time spent in a Leper Colony on the island of Spinalonga in the 1950s.

The heroine’s mother has also spent her last years on the island.

The story explained how the mainland could be seen from the island, in fact most of the lepers could see their own village.  

Without giving the plot away, the agony and despair of the lepers was well described.  The dreaded diagnosis meant, to adult or child, exile to the island with little or no hope of returning to their families.  The symptoms of this ancient and terrifying disease, now well documented, were described.  

Some of us felt the characters lacked depth but others felt that Hislop had shown us a situation we had known little about. The majority of the group liked it and felt it was a light holiday read. We were of the opinion it had been written by a journalist rather than a novelist. The overriding message is that while the disease has been eradicated in Europe it still remains in the Third World .  

The one redeeming factor is that it can be cured and is not as contagious as was once believed.

As usual it was a lively and enjoyable meeting.

Sheena Fraser


This page last edited on 30 October 2011