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2013 Book Reviews

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens – February 201

At our February meeting we discussed “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens.  As usual the group had many different opinions about the book.


Opinions ranged from:

I think it is one of his most profound books, the plots and sub-plots are brilliantly handled and it is fascinating to see how he juggles and interweaves all those complex threads. As always, his characterization is superb. Each character is finely drawn and well developed throughout the story with some interesting psychological insights into the motivation of the characters.” 


“I gave up after the first two chapters and found it hard going.  Dickens needs editing”. 


However as usual we had a lively, good natured and interesting discussion.


Andy Moir

Started Early, took my dog” by Kate Atkinson – March 201


At our March meeting we discussed “Started Early, took my dog” by Kate Atkinson.  It is the fourth of her crime novels that feature the "semi-retired" private investigator Jackson Brodie.  It is set in Yorkshire in the 1970’s and in the present day.  It has a complex plot with many characters.


As usual the group had many different opinions about the book; a majority of the group really enjoyed it, found it very readable and especially liked its strong sense of place.  One member who had lived in Leeds in the early 1970’s found it a very convincing picture of the time and the city. A number of members said that they would like to read another of Kate Atkinson’s books.


However a minority of members found the book depressing and difficult to read with too many characters and too many unbelievable coincidences.  In spite of our differences the discussion was, as always, interesting and good-natured.

Andy Moir

Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway – April 201


Once again we returned to the “Classics” with the choice of Hemingway’s “Old Man of the Sea”.

This book had been read by most of the group, dare I say it, in our youth.  Coming back to it in maturity gave a lot of food for thought.  Hemingway was called an adventurer in his lifetime. His life had many “ups and downs”, often reflected in his writing.


The “Old Man of the Sea” brought the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature and is recognised as containing some of his best writing.


The story tells the tale of an old man, Santiago , the fisherman who is at one with nature and his mistress – the Sea, and his struggle with a large Marlin.  The fisherman has a young boy, Manolin, who helps him but he has not caught anything in 84 days. So the boy’s parents regard Santiago as unlucky and send the boy to sail with another fisherman.


This time Santiago is lucky and catches a big fish. The problem of holding the Marlin that is too big to be brought aboard, require it to be lashed to the skiff itself. The ensuing trials and pain suffered by the old man, alone in the boat, are graphically described.


Everyone enjoyed the Short Story, and although certain aspects of Hemingway’s personality and lifestyle caused discussion and disagreement most of the group were keen to read more of his work.

Sheena Fraser

American Rust” by Philipp Meyer – May 2013

At the beginning of our meeting, group member Ros was anxious.  She had recommended this month’s book, American Rust by Philipp Meyer, but now she was sure we wouldn’t like it.  But she needn’t have worried.  The book’s subject matter, the aftermath of the decline of the American steel industry in the 1980s, interested nearly all of us.  The Pennsylvania-based steel industry was once the largest in the world, and the book explores the effect of its decline and disappearance on a close-knit community in the Mon (Monohgahela) Valley.

Life has not been kind to the five main characters in this book.  They are faced with difficult choices during these hard times, all of which impact on the others in the story.  So we appreciated that the book could not be read lightly. It tells us, compellingly, from the points of view of the characters, about how life can be harsh.  Many group members said how much they appreciated the author’s honest portrayal of an America completely different from the glossy upbeat Hollywood image. 

We admired his writing, especially the way that the characters are so vividly depicted.  So much so that we are still wondering what did happen to them in the end.  Our discussion of the ending revealed that we all had different interpretations of the characters’ fates, a fascinating experience that only a good book and a good book group can give.

Jenny Moir


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows    – June 2013

At our June meeting we discussed “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  This is a book that is unusual in its exclusive use of a series of letters between some five or six main characters as its means of telling a story of an early post-war period in Guernsey , following its occupation by the Nazis during the war. 

Its main protagonist, Juliet Ashton, a writer, is drawn into an ever-expanding dialogue between members of the Literary Society, her publisher and others, following a first letter from one of its members, Dawsey, to her, which eventually leads to Juliet's decision to visit the island.

Opinion as to its literary merit was almost equally divided between those who found the story variously moving, quirky, comical and romantic and therefore enjoyable and those for whom the story, the style in which it was presented, the characterisation and the eventual romantic outcome was both unrealistic and twee in the extreme.

Comments were as varied as "I can say unequivocally that I thoroughly enjoyed. . ." to "It was comfort reading" to "Didn't like it at all - Rubbish. Basic!" and "Didn't like it - characters too good to be true", amply conveyimg the disparate views, almost evenly divided, between members.

On a personal note, whilst the book was an easy read and whilst I appreciated Mary Ann Shaffer's ability, unusual in an American, to write in the manner of a middle class Englishwoman (Juliet), the story and its characters were totally unconvincing.

Harry Franklin


The Moment” by Douglas Kennedy    – July 2013

Last months book was The Moment by Douglas Kennedy. He is an American author who was born in New York in 1955. He has written 10 novels, 2 of which have been made into films and 3 travel books.


The Moment was his last book, which was published in 2011. The Moment is basically a love story set against Cold War Berlin , 5 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Thomas is a young American travel writer who had a lonely and unhappy childhood. The only child of warring parents. His mother smoked herself to an early death from lung cancer.  Petra also an only child who was born in Halle in East Germany but moved to East Berlin as a student. Here she marries Jurgen, a dissident playwriter by whom she as a child-a boy. 


Petra and Thomas meet in West Berlin where they fall madly in love. By this time, Petra 's husband has committed suicide in an East German prison. Petra had also been imprisoned, harshly treated and had her 1 year old son taken away from her as an unfit parent. The child was then placed with a Starsi family. Petra is exchanged for a couple of East German spies being held in the West.


The love affair has been going on for about 6 months and they are about to marry and go to the States when a CIA agent informs Thomas that Petra is an East German spy. Thomas can't handle this betrayal and he throws Petra out without allowing her to explain and returns to the US alone, where he becomes a successful writer.


About 20 years later with an unhappy marriage behind him, he receives a package from Petra 's son in Berlin . Petra has just died from a rare form of cancer as a result of radiation she received as a prisoner in East Berlin . The package contains notebooks written by Petra to explain why she became a spy.  Thomas then visits Berlin and builds up a relationship with the son. 


Everyone was in agreement over how well written the book was, however most felt that at 600 pages it was too long.  Only 2 people really enjoyed the book and they said that they would be happy to read more of his novels. Most felt that the love story and the 2 main characters were totally unconvincing.


Pauline Spratt

Life of Pi” by Yann Martel  – August 2013

At our August meeting the group discussed Booker Prize-winning fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel. 


Pi is raised in Pondicherry a city in Southern India , where his father runs a zoo. Pi is a Hindu but at the age of fifteen he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim.

 Pi’s father decides to close the zoo and emigrate with his family to Canada . So Pi, his family and the many of the zoo animals set sail, During the voyage the ship sinks and Pi is the only survivor.


Pi’s lifeboat also contains a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and Richard Parker a Bengal tiger. As the journey continues most of the animals end up killing each other, leaving pi and Richard Parker as the sole survivors in the lifeboat.


Whilst at sea Richard Parker and Pi survive many adventures but after 227 days they are washed up on a Mexican beach. As soon as they are on land Richard Parker immediately runs off into the jungle, Pi is then found, fed and bathed, and taken to a hospital.  


Whilst in  the hospital, two Japanese men come to question Pi about how the ship sank. Pi tells his story, which the men do not believe, so he them tells another story in which he replaces the animal characters with humans.


As usual the group had an interesting discussion about the book.  The majority of people present enjoyed the book and especially the author’s style of writing.  However some people found the story too unbelievable.


Andy Moir


A Taste of Death” by P.D.James  – September 2013

With 639 pages and 130 characters, P.D. James’ ‘A Taste of Death’, an Adam Dalgliesh murder mystery, was considered by most of us to be too long.  The book was published in 1986 and is set in London .  Many liked the style, but for others it was long-winded and old-fashioned, too padded and wandering off the point.   

Several group members enjoyed the characters, who came from all walks of life, giving an interesting insight into attitudes to women, class and politics of the time. But by the end we found that some of these, along with their situations, became unbelievable and even ridiculous.  The murder mystery was solved at last, but we never found out the reason for one of the victims’ life-changing epiphany that was central to the plot, or the murderer’s motive.  Unlike Agatha Christie, P.D. James leaves no clues.

Because of illness and holidays, only seven of our 16 members were able to attend our meeting.  But we still had an interesting discussion which was enlivened by comments, provided in advance, by absent members.

Jenny Moir



The Beacon” by Susan Hill  – October 2013

We had the pleasure (well most of us) in reading the short novel The Beacon by Susan Hill in October. 

Susan Hill has written many books, the most notable being Woman in Black which was made into a film and a long running play. She was awarded the CBE in 2012 for Services to Literature.

The Beacon was a farm in a remote and dour region of northern England where the main characters lived. Life was consistently hard and grinding. The four children at various times left the farm to pursue other ventures but May, the eldest, returned after failing at University in London, to nurse her ailing mother. Frank, an odd cove, left to become a successful reporter and wrote a novel about his life on the farm. Was this account true or a book of fiction designed to make him rich? Was it his way to gain revenge on his family or was the hurt imagined due to mental problems?

Descriptions of the book by the group ranged from "well written, easy to read, very clever, disturbing and succinct" to "too bleak, depressing and pointless".

The joy of this book group is that we have the opportunity to freely express our views without criticism even if you are the odd one out.

John Raynham


Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte  – November 2013

Apart from those not into Victorian Gothic consumptive stories, our book group members thoroughly enjoyed this old classic.  We appreciated the social history and the portrayal of feisty teenager Jane, whose trials and tribulations confirm the hard life of women in the nineteenth century.  Some found the characters overdrawn by modern standards, but they certainly came to life on the page. 

 Many of us had read the book decades ago at school, or had seen TV or film adaptations.  At our meeting it was good to hear how our recent reading of it made most of us appreciate anew the book’s true depths and the power of an extraordinary story well-told.

 Jenny Moir  


"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes -January 2014 

At our December meeting we discussed the Booker Prize winning novel “A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes.  The novel is divided into two parts both of which are narrated by Tony Webster when he is retired and living alone. The first part begins in the 1960s with four arrogant school friends, of whom two feature in the remainder of the story: Tony, the narrator, and Adrian, the most intelligent of the four. Adrian goes to Cambridge University and Tony to Bristol University  where he has a relationship with Veronica, a fellow student.  Tony spends an awkward weekend with Veronica at her family home.

Their relationship fails in some acrimony. In his final year at university Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he is going out with Veronica. Tony replies to the letter. Some months later he is told that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving a note addressed to the coroner  saying that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine the nature of their life, and may then choose to renounce it. Tony admires the reasoning.  Tony then briefly recounts the following uneventful forty years of his life until his sixties.

The second part of the novel begins, with the arrival of a lawyer's letter informing him that Veronica's mother has bequeathed him £500 and Adrian ’s diary.  These lead him to re-establish contact with Veronica and after a number of meetings with her, to re-evaluate the story he has narrated in the first part.


 The group was divided in their opinion with views ranged from “not my cup of tea – too introspective and self-pitying” to “I unequivocally enjoyed Julian Barnes' book. He writes in such a manner that I felt I was sitting opposite Tony Webster over a quiet drink whilst he told me about his youth and those friends of his youth and then, after we'd topped up our glasses, of his present day life and circumstance”.


As usual we had a lively discussion with a majority enjoying the book and being keen to read another book by Julian Barnes.


Andy Moir





This page last edited on 27 December 2013