University of the Third Age 

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2015 Book Reviews

A Great Deliverance” by Elizabeth George – January 201

 

For our January meeting we read A Great Deliverance by American writer Elizabeth George, the first in her Inspector Lynley series.  Many of us complained, amongst other things, about the incongruity of the Inspector’s background.  Much is made in the book of his rich land-owning family, that he’s an old Etonian and that he drives a silver Bentley.   But group members who’d seen the TV series reported that this was toned down, and it seemed that the book made more sense to them than the rest of us.

 

The mixture of romance and detective story didn’t sit comfortably for some.  The dialogue was corny and the descriptions twee.  The plot jumped around from London to Yorkshire and the coincidences didn’t ring true.  Most of us finished the book but some vowed never to read another.

 

Our comments ranged from, ‘I hated it!’, ‘story was quite interesting’, ‘beginning boring and difficult to follow’, to ‘well I enjoyed it’.  We all enjoyed sharing our opinions and hearing everyone else’s views.

 

Jenny Moir


NW” by Zadie Smith – February 201

 

For our January meeting we read NW by Zadie Smith.   NW is about life in North West London, and some felt that the dialogue is spot on, along with the vivid depiction of the area.  It does help if you know Willesden well. 

 

The structure of the book, which many found difficult if not impossible to read, is often chopped up into scenes from the life of the character being described, as in a film. 

 

The book focuses on three main characters. They are all London-born, two of Caribbean heritage (like the author) and the third from an Irish family, so there is a rich mix of language and experiences.

 

Some of the group didn’t finish the book because of the interrupted narrative and some bad language.  Of those who persevered, most were glad they had though some were still mystified by the aim of the story which didn’t hold back from describing drugs, sex and bad tempers.  But as one group member said, at least it’s chronological.

 

This mix of reactions led to a very interesting discussion, and we’re still wondering about the ending.

 

Jenny Moir


Silas Marner” by George Eliot – April 2015

 

At our April meeting we discussed the novel Silas Marner by George Eliot. The novel is set in the early years of the 19th century and tells the story of Silas Marner, a weaver who moves to the small Midlands village of Raveloe , from a Northern industrial town after he is falsely accused of stealing the funds of the small Calvanist sect to which he belonged.

 

In Raveloe Silas initially lives as a recluse living only to work and to hoard the gold that he has earned. His gold is stolen by the dissolute younger son of the local Squire and Silas sinks into a deep gloom, despite the villagers' attempts to help him. Then his life is changed completely by the arrival of a young child whose opium addicted mother dies in the snow near Silas’s cottage.  The child is the secret daughter of the Squire’s oldest son who conceals the fact so that he can marry another woman and Silas decides to bring up the child himself.

 

Very unusually for our group, where we normally have many varied opinions about the books we read, we all enjoyed this book.  We liked how George Eliot portrayed village life which had largely disappeared due to industrialisation even when she published the book in 1861.

 

We all particularly enjoyed the way George Eliot captured the way the local villagers talked especially in the scenes in the village pub. A very enjoyable book. 

Andy Moir


The Age of Doubt” by Andrea Camilleri – May 2015

 

At our May meeting we discussed the novel The Age of Doubt” by Andrea Camilleri.   The novel features Inspector Montalbano and is set in the imaginary Sicilian town of Vigàta .

 

Andrea Camilleri didn’t start writing his Inspector Montalbano books until 1994, after a long and successful career as a film and stage director and screen writer.  Born in 1925, he was 86 when he wrote The Age of Doubt, and his TV series had been going for thirteen years.

 

We mostly agreed that it’s an easy read, but opinion was divided over whether the goings-on in the book rang true or not, or if the frequent reference to Montalbano’s Sicilian meals were really necessary.  Some of us who’ve seen the TV series felt more at home with the book because we’d seen the characters come to life.

 

Is the characters’ behaviour silly or amusing?  Has Camilleri written a comical book that sends up his Sicilian culture?  Do 57-year-old men there really fall hopelessly in love like teenagers?  Would the police really employ a slapstick comical figure who gets names wrong on front desk?  Does anyone do any actual work?

 

We read the book in translation of course, but the 58 characters and 18 place-names were all in Italian, which made keeping a track of them all a bit of a problem for those of us unfamiliar with the language.  We did ‘get’ one of the names, though; Belladonna, the beautiful, much lusted-after woman…

 

Jenny Moir


Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves – June 2015

 

At our June meeting we discussed Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves. The book is his autobiography, first published in 1929, when the author was thirty-four. A large part of the book is taken up by his experience of the First World War, in which Graves served as a lieutenant, then captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

 

We all found the book very powerful and moving especially the sections which dealt with Graves time at Charterhouse public school and with his experiences during World War 1. It is a book everyone should read!

 

The comments below from one members of our group sums up our feeling extremely well. 

 

“As a historical record of WW1 it is brilliant; made so by Graves ’ excellent writing skills and his attention to detail. His diaries must have been superb.  As a personal record of his and his colleagues’ suffering I found it harrowing to read. It was a miracle he came back alive and another miracle that he was not permanently scarred for life mentally.

 

His ability to find humour in the horror of war is remarkable, particularly where troops were issued with useless spanners to open gas bottles. The revelation that the troops were issued with defective gas masks and in the end were told not to wear them as they were more trouble than they were worth I found incredible.

 

Graves ’ comments (shared by many) regarding the Versailles Treaty, in that the Germans were humiliated thus being one of the  causes of WW2 is interesting. I personally think that a maniac such as Hitler would have found any excuse for war, the Versailles treaty just being one of many convenient excuses.

 

Graves ’ early life at public school sums up all that is wrong with the system. His interaction during and after the war with other giants of literature such as Siegfried Sassoon, was very interesting. His own climbing ability and his good fortune of climbing with Mallory was another example of this incredibly talented individual. His revelation that he drank a tankard of beer before starting to climb was just unbelievable.

I was pleased that I read the book out of respect for all the people that suffered and died for us all but I am not sure if I can I say I enjoyed it.”

John Raynham

 


The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan – July 2015

 

At the July meeting, we met to discuss The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, a story set in early twentieth century Shanghai, telling of the experiences of two women, mother and daughter, both of whom, in succeeding generations, were high-class prostitutes.

 

Unusually, there was almost unanimous agreement that the book was too long, unnecessarily repetitive and largely boring. Comments varied from “dullest book I’ve ever read,” to “lacking in any descriptive passages concerning Shanghai ”.

 

Some members had read The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife and from these earlier novels by Amy Tan, had expectations of this book which were simply not realised.

 

My own observations included the likes of what I felt to be incredulous episodes such as the journey from Moon Pond to Mountain View, the absurdity of the ease with which both main protagonists each had a child taken from her in the most unlikely circumstances and the whole telling of the story in a way that more readily suited Oriental rather than Occidental readers. It seemed to this reader that it was told in the same fashion as Chinese opera is portrayed, almost child-like in its unrealistic presentation.

 

I also felt that in spite of the many expletives and explicit sexual references, this was more a book written for women, Eastern or Western.

 

Altogether a disappointment and sufficiently a let-down to discourage reading her other novels.

Harry Franklin

 


On Green Dolphin Street” by Sebastian Faulks – August 2015

 

 

The group met in August to discuss “On Green Dolphin Street” by Sebastian Faulks, a novel set in America in 1959/1960 marking the end of the Eisenhower era and leading to the climax of the presidential battle between Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice-President and John F Kennedy, the Democratic candidate.

 

Members were sharply divided both in respect of the author’s literary style, with comments varying between “too self-regarding” and “every word he writes is absolutely right for the narrative” and the story itself, with one or two readers finding the book sufficiently of little interest so as not to complete reading it, whilst others enjoyed it to the full.

 

However, equally for those who enjoyed the book and for those who didn’t, there was a consensus regarding two of the main characters, Charlie van der Linden a diplomat based at the British Embassy in Washington , and his wife Mary, mother of their two children. Both were almost unanimously dismissed by members as, in Charlie’s case, a man whose self-inflicted problems of alcoholism and financial debt were simply an annoying waste of a considerable talent and Mary, whose constantly professed love for Charlie and her children was offset by her simultaneous obsession for Frank Renzo, the third of the main protagonists, with whom she had fallen in love.

 

Of these three, members felt that it was Frank, an American journalist covering the Presidential election, who commanded a measure of appreciation, although even he was a flawed character, wavering between a reckless liaison with Mary and a decision to do the right thing by her and Charlie. Most members were also united in appreciating Faulks’ intimate knowledge of both the political scene at the time and of his familiarity with the environs of both New York and Washington , which gave an added authenticity to the story.

 

And finally, as good a story as some of us felt “On Green Dolphin Street ” was, the “on/off, will they won’t they?” ending had a distinctly contrived feeling about it which disappointed.

 

Altogether, this book divided opinion amongst members to a degree unusual within the group.

 

Harry Franklin


The picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde – September 2015

 

At the September meeting we discussed The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.  Most people know that the novel is about a young man who doesn’t grow old and remains young and handsome in spite of living a dissolute and narcissistic life showing no regard for others.  Meanwhile his portrait, hidden in an attic room, grows uglier and uglier with every wicked act he commits. However in spite of the story being very well known very few of members of the group, probably like the majority of people, had actually read the novel before.

 

The majority of the group found the book easy to read and especially enjoyed Oscar Wilde’s humorous epithets and were pleased that they had finally read such a famous classic of English Literature.  However whilst they were pleased they had read it a number of people said that they didn’t enjoy the novel.

 

We had a very interesting discussion on the book itself which also led us on to discussions about the terrible treatment of gay men in the 19th century and of the very wide gap between the life of the rich and idle aristocrats like Dorian Grey and the working people whom he treated with such contempt.

 

As usual our views of the book were very varied. One member thought that it was ludicrously overblown and too indulgent whilst another person really enjoyed the book and thought that it was the most interesting book we had read this year.

 

Andy Moir


This Boy” by Alan Johnson – October 2015

 

At our October meeting we discussed “This Boy” by Alan Johnson. The book is an autobiography written by the future Home Secretary who was born in 1950.  It describes his childhood when he was brought up in poverty living in condemned housing in Notting Hill before it was gentrified. It takes us through the race riots, school, the Swinging 60s when he joined a group and hoped to become a pop star, became a husband and father and joined the Post Office whilst still in his teens.

 

At the centre Alan Johnson’s story are two incredible women: Alan's mother, Lily, who battled against poor health, poverty, domestic violence and loneliness to try to ensure a better life for her children, and his sister, Linda, who had to assume an enormous amount of responsibility at a very young age and who fought to keep the family together and out of care after Lily died and when she herself was still only a child.

 

We all enjoyed the book and said that we would like to read Alan Johnson’s next book which describes his life as a postman in the 1970s.

 

The book brought back memories of the 50s and 60s to us all and for one member born in the East End in 1949 it reawakened very similar ones to Alan Johnson’s:

  • ·                 Sunday school and shellfish only on a Sunday

  • ·                 Pedal car - I always wanted one of them - how hard done by I was!

  • ·                 Pie and mash, Tizer and R. Whites - if you were posh you had Corona .

  • ·                 Cinema at the Bughutch in Bethnal Green Road - a salubrious establishment!

  • ·                 78rpm records that we eventually made into fruit bowls

  • ·                 Paraffin heater in the bathroom - when I bent over to dry my legs I always burnt my bum on it!

  • ·                 7 people in a crescent around the coal fire in our 2 bedroom prefab.

  • ·                 Net curtains freezing to the windows inside the bedroom.

  • ·                 Flick cards for boys to play with - two balls for girls.

  • ·                 Cane and slipper at school.

  • ·                 Box carts made from old prams with subsequent scraped knees and bruises.

  • ·                 Bread pudding made with stale bread.

  • ·                 Harold Hill near Romford - we had an aunt and uncle who lived there and that was a trip to the country.

  • ·                 1963 the Big Freeze when the Thames froze over.

  • ·                 Boys were discouraged from crying or showing emotion.

  • ·                 1960s pop music.

Andy Moir and John Raynham


The Burning Air” by Erin Kelly – November 2015

 

The group met in November to discuss “The Burning Air” by Erin Kelly, an author not hitherto read by anyone present other than the member who recommended it. The story deals with the obsession of the main character, Darcy Kellaway, whose need to exact revenge against the MacBride family forms the core of the book and stems from a conviction of being unjustly denied a scholarship, because of a perceived nepotism, to the prestigious school of which Rowan MacBride, the head of the family, was the Admissions Tutor.

 

 Although opinions differed widely in respect of the story, there was unanimity in appreciating the quality of the writing, to the extent that one critique suggested that writing of this quality but producing such a story was akin to over-decorating a lavatory, rather a waste of a resource. However, for some, the book presented, from its earliest pages, a real enjoyment, one with which they immediately felt comfortable. Comments such as “Enjoyed, easy to read and would welcome reading another of her books,” “Page-turner, plot well-constructed.” Or again, “Really enjoyed, very well written” Another, “I read a lot of psycho-thrillers and this is one of the best.” And “Air of intrigue from the start. Characters seemed real and warm”.

 

But there were those who disliked the book, particularly the author’s apparent bias towards upper middle class values as portrayed by the MacBrides. Some readers were uncomfortable with Darcy’s fixation of seeking revenge against the MacBrides, the culmination of which, had it been successful, would have destroyed the family Comments such as “Not deep nor meaningful” Felt uncomfortable reading Darcy’s first person narrative and state of mind”. And several readers thought the ending rather rushed, unconvincing and contrived.

 

The cover blurb had promised “A twist to the story so shocking you’ll need to lie down”. It transpired that the twist was revealed after some 150 pages when Darcy, seeking to rent an apartment, told the landlord to “call me Matt as my middle name is Matthew”. Everybody, except the person who’d introduced the book, had, understandably thought Darcy to be a girl. Indeed, a couple of references in the narrative seemed to point this way.  This reviewer did not feel sufficiently shocked at this revelation to resort to lying down nor see the point of this rather pointless deception.

 

To summarise, it would be fair to say that on balance, a majority of members liked the book, some of whom would read Erin Kelly’s other works.

Harry Franklin

 


 
 

 

 

 


This page last edited on 01 December 2015