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2012 Book Reviews

“David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens – January 2012

It was of course appropriate that on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens that the group read a Dickens classic. The book is 855 pages long in small print and therefore a daunting prospect for some of the group over the busy Christmas period.  

The book, originally called The Personal History of David Copperfield, was originally published in 19 monthly parts commencing in May 1849 and was eventually published as a book in November1850. It is believed that the book was semi-autobiographical and Dickens confessed that David Copperfield was his favourite character. Dickens was a social campaigner and his books describe in great detail the poverty, misery, prostitution, class and penal system of the Victorian era and yet still manages to introduce us to wonderfully comic characters.  

As usual the opinions of the group were widely divergent from ‘marvellous’ to ‘too long’ to ‘the female characters were weak’ but overall was deemed to be an excellent book.  

The ability of Dickens to create characters such as evil Mr. Murdstone and his sister Jane, wonderful Mr.Micawber, kind and loyal Mrs Peggotty, dastardly, conniving, ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep, stoical Mr. Peggotty, generous Traddles, formidable Betsy Trotwood and many more is a tribute to the genius of Dickens.  

The book follows the journey of David Copperfield from boyhood to being a married man in his twenties and details the interaction between him and the characters detailed above.

It is obviously difficult to summarise this book in such a short review, so all I will do is to repeat what one member of the group said and that is ‘It is a masterpiece’ which is an appropriate way to finish this review.

John Raynham

“The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas – February 201

At our February meeting we discussed The Slap by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.  The novel is set in 21st century multicultural Australia and tells of the repercussions following a barbecue in suburban Melbourne where a man slaps a three year old boy across the face.  The boy had been misbehaving without any intervention by his parents.

The story is told through the voices of eight characters each in a chapter of their own.  Their reactions to the incident range from believing a naughty boy should be taught some discipline to calling in the police to investigate an assault and with full a range of positions in between.

This was the most controversial book that our reading group has read and we were widely divided over its merits with opinions ranging from “the book is pornographic and should never have been published” to “it’s the best book I’ve read in the last year” with the majority of the group holding opinions somewhere between these extremes.

In spite of our differences we still had a lively and interesting discussion and as usual it was a stimulating and enjoyable meeting.

Andy Moir


Lovers and Newcomers” by  Rosie Thomas – March 2012

At our March meeting we discussed Lovers and Newcomers by Rosie Thomas.  This novel, about a group of university graduates from the 1960’s who embark on communal living 40 years later, met a mixed response.

Everyone read the 500 page novel and it was generally agreed to be a light easy read with some reservations.  These focussed on the feasibility of the commune idea, whether the characters were realistic especially considering that a number of group members had been to university in the 1960’s and annoyance with the characters’ apparent preoccupation with aging when only in their 50’s!

The Rosie Thomas fans in the group felt that it wasn’t one of her better books and were sorry that this one appeared to have put people off reading any more!

The discussion was certainly interesting, as we exchanged a variety of opinions and views about different aspects of the plot and characters who somehow came more alive during the meeting.

Jenny Moir


Old Filth” by  Jane Gardam – April 2012


At our March meeting we discussed Old Filth by   Jane Gardam.  Sir Edward Feathers an elderly  judge, AKA “ Old Filth” has retired to England with his wife Betty after a lifetime spent mainly in Hong Kong – hence the nickname Failed In London Try Hong Kong – FILTH. In the winter of his days and especially after Betty’s sudden death he takes to reflecting on his past life.

 Born in Malaysia to a mother who died giving birth to him and with an emotionally cold and distant father who virtually abandoned him to be raised by servants until he was old enough to be sent to England to be educated, his was a disjointed and loveless existence, made bearable by one sensitive and sympathetic teacher and a few friends who were also “Raj Orphans”, billeted with him in Ma Tibb’s house in Wales.

 Confused and distressed by Betty’s death he embarks on a chaotic journey along the motorways of England revisiting friends from his past. The tragi-comic account of this journey reflects the sad nature of Sir Edward’s life. His success as a lawyer has not made him a happy or contented man, as he has been unable to make warm relationships, even with Betty who, in the past has had an affair with Veneering, his old adversary and rival.  Towards the end of the novel as the childhood friends reminisce, the dark secret at the heart of much of Edward’s angst is revealed and this episode is depicted with great poignancy, by Jane Gardam.

 With a few exceptions members of the group were very impressed with this novel. .  Most were moved by the plight of Edward and felt compassion for his suffering as “he wept silently behind his hands in this unknown place.” The novel provides a strong critique of the damaging effects that the Empire wrought on the children of the Empire builders.

 There was general agreement that it was a beautifully written and carefully crafted novel with skilfully interwoven elements of comedy and tragedy.  Jane Gardam writes in a spare, selective style, each word carefully chosen, with no superfluous elements. Some group members have already embarked on their next Jane Gardam novel and most said that they would readily read more of her work. A ringing endorsement!

Ros McGonagle


The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by  Mohsin Hamid – May 2012

At our May meeting we discussed “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid.  A chance encounter in a Lahore café between an American tourist and a citizen of Lahore provides the setting for Mohsin Hamid’s intelligent and moving short novel.  

 But wait – is it a chance encounter? Is the American a tourist, and is his new found acquaintance a mere bystander? Changez, brought up in a traditional family in Pakistan and educated at a prestigious business school in America , retells the story of his disenchantment with the American Dream, despite his success in the financial world and the material benefits this brings. He also describes love affair with a beautiful American woman Erica, in many ways the personification of this dream, and a metaphor for his love affair with America . The disintegration of this relationship parallels his developing abhorrence of the cut-throat business world he finds himself in, and his life in America .

 Changez recounts his return to his home country, his re-evaluation of the values of his own culture, which he had, to some extent rejected, during his sojourn in America and his attempts to use his education and knowledge to help his family and community. As night approaches the atmosphere between the two men takes on a more sinister aspect – the imagery of the bats flying in the dusk is used to vivid effect at this point. Changez suggests that they relocate to a better quality teashop and the two men move towards………   The novel deals with issues of identity, religion, materialism and values.

 Group members, for the most part, admired the quality of the novel, even those who said it would not have been their first choice. All agreed that it was a beautifully written and thought provoking work. It certainly provoked much interesting and perceptive discussion from members of the group, ranging from politics,to philosophy and value systems. . The general feeling, however, was that the relationship between Changez and Erica was the least convincing aspect of the novel.

 The ending of the novel is ambiguous and this provoked substantial and lively discussion. Finally we had a vote and the decision was….Dear Reader, have a look and decide for yourself. You won’t regret it!

Ros McGonagle  


House Rules” by  Jodi Picoult – June 2012

At our June meeting we discussed House Rules by Jodi Picoult.  House Rules is a novel about a boy with Asperger's Syndrome called Jacob who has been accused of the murder of his social skills counsellor.  The novel is written from the various points of view of a number of the characters including Jacob, his brother Theo, his family, the lawyer and also explores Jacob's disability.


We had an interesting and varied discussion and our group felt that the book was an easy read but it was too long and should have been edited. In addition the ending came to a rapid conclusion and was disappointing. It was also felt that the mother was very isolated and did not seem to have any support from the local community or self help groups.  There was no mention of the mother's family except for her ex-husband. 


Theo the younger brother has missed his mother's attention due to her devotion to Jacob. Theo is very unhappy and breaks into houses and wishes he lived the lives of the people that live in the houses and eventually he runs away to see his father. But still he is not able to talk to his father and tell him what he has done!


A few members enjoyed this book but more did not. Members who had read other Jodi Picoult books agreed that House Rules was not her best. 


If you require an insight into Asperger's Syndrome this would be a good place to start.


Kay Raynham


Heartstone by CJ Sansom - July 2012


At our July meeting we discussed Heartstone by CJ Sansom.  Heartstone is the latest in CJ Sansom’s series of historical murder mysteries set in Tudor times, and the third from the series that we’ve read in the Book Group. 


Most readers enjoyed the book but not everyone.  It was generally agreed that the book’s main weakness is its length – 626 pages.  Sansom is good at taking us back in time with his meticulously-researched and vivid period detail, but sometimes there’s just too much.


One of the advantages of the slow pace, some felt, was that it brought home to us how, for example, a 16-mile journey would have taken all day on horse-back, with the traveller arriving filthy, exhausted and full of aches and pains.  However, many said that Sansom’s prose would have been improved by some judicious pruning.  This has been a bit of a theme lately, as our last book was also felt to be too long.


Overall, though, there was a positive response to this book and several group members said they’d be happy to read another CJ Sansom historical thriller. 


Jenny Moir


The Great Stink by Clare Clark - August 12.



At our August meeting we discussed “The Great Stink” by Clare Clark. The author used the unusual method in this book of combining factual and fictional characters and events to tell the story.


The great Victorian civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette is used to set the scene in which William May, a veteran of the Crimean War, is appointed to the staff of Bazelgette in order to survey the existing sewerage system under London with a view to constructing a new system to remove the filth from the streets.


William is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder which was not recognised at that time and he descends into the sewers to self-harm.


The lighter parts of the story involve Tom the rat catcher selling giant rats from the sewers to a pub landlord to enable Tom's dog Lady (who Tom really loves) to kill the rats in a pit whilst men gamble on the outcome.

The marriage of William to Polly descends from a loving relationship to despair as William is accused of corruption and murder. William is held firstly in a lunatic asylum and then in a ghastly prison ship to await his trial.  Believe it or not there was a happy ending!


Although this book was well written with excellent imagery of Victorian London, the constant and unending description of the contents of the sewers in such graphic detail was too much for all members of the group.


John Raynham


Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell.- September 12


This month we read ‘Not in the Flesh’ by Ruth Rendell. Unusually, every member of our group was in agreement.  Nobody liked this book, with several readers finding they couldn’t even finish it.  It’s poorly written, without even the basic requirements of correct punctuation and clear indication of who’s speaking.  There are far too many characters and names, many totally irrelevant to the story. 


And the story!  The plot’s all over the place, with an extremely unconvincing sub-plot about a Somali community and Female Genital Mutilation gratuitously grafted onto the story. All the characters are strangely old-fashioned cardboard cut-out stereotypes that convinced nobody, and the settings equally contrived, with far too much tedious irrelevant detail.


It was difficult to distinguish between the two murders, and when it turned out that both the murderers were already dead from the start of the book, it felt like a Who Dunnit cop-out.  Many have vowed never to read another Ruth Rendell ever again.


Jenny Moir  

Restless by William Boyd - October 12


In October we discussed “Restless” by William Boyd.  In the novel, William Boyd tells the story of Eva, a young Russian woman who after her brother's death is recruited in the 1930’s to work for the British secret service.  The tale is interlinked with a story set in 1976 of Eva's daughter Ruth and how she comes to terms with the discovery of her mother's secret life.


The novel exposes a little known incident in the Second World War when during 1940 and 1941, the British Security Coordination (B.S.C.) an arm of the British Secret Intelligence Service, carried out one of the most fascinating and least known covert operations of the Second World War.  Working out of Rockefeller Center in New York , British agents distributed a stream of false stories and black propaganda in an effort to turn public opinion against Germany and draw America into the war. The B.S.C. systematically planted anti-German stories with fake datelines, encouraged the harassment of Nazi sympathizers and even came up with an astrologer to predict disaster for Hitler and Germany .


The secret work of the B.S.C. played a vital part in turning American public opinion towards support for intervention but its work was made redundant when in December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and America entered the war on the side of the allies.


As usual the group was divided about the book with a small minority not enjoying it and finding it slow and unconvincing.  However the majority really enjoyed the story and the author’s writing style.  One member called it a “rattling good yarn” and another called it “a good rollicking read” and most members said that they would like to read another book by William Boyd.


Andy Moir



The Return by Victoria Hislop

At our November meeting of the group, we discussed The Return by Victoria Hislop. 


The Return opens in the present day with Londoners Sonia who is half-Spanish and is unhappily married to James, and her wild friend Maggie flying to Spain to attend a Samba dancing course in Granada . While Maggie enjoys the night life, Sonia frequents a cafe owned by Miguel who tells her tales of the past and the story of the Spanish civil war. 


Miguel's third person account, starts from the beginning of Spain 's Second Republic and ends in the aftermath of the civil war. The Ramirez family who owned the cafe in the civil war were divided by their political beliefs and different views of the war. Pablo and Concha Ramirez had four children including Mercedes who loved flamenco dancing and fell in love with a gypsy guitarist Javier.  


This is the second novel by Victoria Hislop and one of our group said that "we should commend Victoria Hislop for writing about the Spanish civil war". 


Most of our members thought that the middle of the book concerning the Spanish civil war was interesting but the rest of the book was not. One member of the group really enjoyed the book but most members said they would not read another novel by Victoria Hislop.  


Kay Raynham


The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville


The last book of the year was chosen with our usual appetite for variety.  Our choice was “The Lieutenant” by Kate Grenville, an Australian author.


As usual it met with mixed pleasure and criticism. While some found it tedious, the remainder found the tale of a young lieutenant/astronomer, bound for Australia aboard a naval vessel carrying convicts and with the task to observe a comet, which never materialised, most interesting.


While the Captain of the ship, a dyspeptic fellow, tried to encourage his crew and officers to “civilise” the native people, the lieutenant took himself to a nearby hill to study the skies.


The crew found the native villagers shy and unresponsive.  In the meantime Rooke, the young lieutenant, had made friends with a group of children. He struck up a friendship with the oldest girl “Tagarang” and was keen to learn her language.


As food became scarcer rifts and flaws appeared. We were shown the cruel and brutal side of Colonial invasion. Rooke was horrified with some of the acts this involved. One particular occurrence was the order by an ever-failing Captain of the capture of six villagers alive or dead.


Lieutenant Rooke mutineed and refused to obey an order with the result that he was sent home. The Captain was merely Governor and did not have the authority to order a Court Martial.


We next learn that Rooke is in Antigua and fifty years and a wife and family have come and gone. The mystery of the Court Martial was never solved. Rooke had used his money to buy slaves thereafter setting them free and in doing so alienating the white population and beggaring himself in the process.


The overall opinion was that the tale, based on fact, was interesting and enjoyed by the majority although lacking a satisfactory ending.

Sheena Fraser


This page last edited on 04 March 2013