University of the Third Age 

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2016 Book Reviews
 


Lustrum by Robert Harris - January 2014

 

At our January meeting we discussed Lustrum by Robert Harris.  Lustrum is a novel set in Rome in 63 BC and is the second volume of Robert Harris trilogy about Cicero who was a philosopher, a politician, a lawyer and a great orator.  Rome in 63 BC was still a republic and was rapidly conquering a vast empire.

 

The book describes the struggle for power between seven real historical figures; Cicero a consul, Caesar his ruthless young rival, Pompey the republic's greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath and Clodius an ambitious playboy.


Whilst the majority of people present enjoyed the book, as frequently happens in our group we had widely differing opinions which lead to a lively and interesting discussion.

 

Our opinions varied from “It’s marvellous how Robert Harris recreates Roman history and I thoroughly enjoyed the book and can’t wait to read the next book in the trilogy” to “I didn’t get on with it and only read the first few chapters”.

 

Having previously read another of Robert Harris books “The Ghost” we agreed that the group would like to read another one of his books but probably not the next volume in the Cicero trilogy.

 

Andy Moir


 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - February 2016

 

At our February meeting we discussed Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  The novel is a dystopian story set in a 1990’s England and it tells the story of three children from the point of view of one of them, Kathy, from their education together in a boarding school to the “completion” of her two friends.  The novel hints at the awful truth in a series of memories that Kathy relates but the full story is not revealed until the end.


We all found it a very disturbing story as the author intended it to be, and some people found it so disturbing that they felt unable to finish reading the book.  However the majority of the group who did preserver found it a very interesting, well written and thought-provoking book.  We were particularly impressed by how well the author was able to tell the story in the voice of a young woman.

 

We had an interesting and lively discussion over issues raised such as “nature versus nurture”, and whether the story is really about cloning and donors or whether it is about how in modern society we are not always concerned about where things come from as long as we can have cheap food and clothes.

 

Opinion was divided over whether we would recommend the book to other people but most people agreed that they would like to read another novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

 

Andy Moir

 
 
 
 

 

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton - March 2016

 

A smaller attendance than usual met at our March meeting to discuss “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton. However, the lack of members present was compensated by the number of written reviews received.

 

Adjectives such as intriguing, brilliant and compelling were expressed by members, as were their appreciation of the author’s grasp of historical details pertaining to the period and the location, Amsterdam, in the late seventeenth century.

 

A feature of the story was the way in which the main characters acted in order to be able to present themselves so as to be acceptable to society. One example of this was the decision of Johannes, an active homosexual, to enter into marriage with Nella as a way of disguising his sexuality, although his behaviour towards this young woman was less than admirtable. Another was the felt need to cover the head of a new-born child so as not to reveal that she was of mixed race.

 

Nearly all members expressed puzzlement as to the identity of the Miniaturist. Who was she? was a common theme when discussing the book.

 

Members were unanimous in wanting to read more of Ms Burton’s work and in particular, wished for a follow-up to this story. Meanwhile, this was a much approved choice that gave satisfaction to everyone who contributed to the review.

 

Harry Franklin



The Narrows by Michael Connelly - April 2016

At our April meeting we discussed The Narrows by Michael Connelly.  The Narrows is the tenth in the series of popular novels by Michael Connelly that features Harry Bosch, formerly an LAPD detective but now retired. 

 

Bosch is asked by the widow of Terry McCaleb, an ex-FBI agent to investigate his death.  Bosch starts the investigation and begins to suspect that a notorious serial killer and ex-FBI supervisor may have murdered McCaleb. Digging deeper, Bosch follows a lead to Las Vegas that brings him into contact with the FBI.

As frequently happens at our meetings our opinions of the book varied enormously.  A majority really enjoyed the book and found Michael Connelly’s style of writing and plotting extremely enjoyable and were keen to read another book by the writer. One member said that the book was “very pacey, great plot development, interesting characters, excellent storyline and very well written”.

However some members did not like the story or the author’s style and they especially didn’t like the authors “Americanisms”,

As always it was an interesting, lively and enjoyable afternoon. 

Andy Moir


Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson - May 2016

 

At our May meeting we discussed Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The novella which was published in 1886, is about a London lawyer named Gabriel John Utterson who investigates the strange relationship between his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the evil Edward Hyde. 

 

It was the first time that most of the group had read the story and we were all astonished that such a short story of only 75 pages should have had such an impact on popular culture with the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" having become a part our everyday language.

 

As frequently happens at our meetings our opinions of the book varied enormously.  A majority didn’t like the book and it was described as “very wordy with unconvincing characters” and they felt it had a very negative view of human nature and how someone’s appearance showed their character.  A very Victorian view.

 

The minority who did enjoy reading the book found it “very powerful but also very disturbing”.

 

After having read two famous 19th century Gothic stories; “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde“ by Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde we thought that we would include a third “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley in next year’s reading list.

 

As always it was an interesting, lively and enjoyable afternoon.

 

Andy Moir


The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - June 2016

 

At our June meeting we discussed The Book Thief by the Australian writer Marcus Zusak.  The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a ten years old girl at the start of the book.  Liesel's experiences in Germany during World War II are narrated by Death. The story is partly based on Zusak’s parents’ experience in Germany and Austria during World War II.

 

Unusually for us the whole group found it an interesting and worthwhile read but while we were all positive about the book some people were more critical of it than others. 

 

Whilst one person said:

“…some books have the power to give us insights into what it is to be human. The Book Thief is such a book. I first read it some years ago, when it was first published and my admiration of it has only been enhanced by a second reading. Zusak captures to a high degree the sense of terror and dread engendered by the Nazi regime in Europe.”

 

Another said:

However, there's a caveat to the pleasure the story gave me. I'm really sorry to say that for me the principal characters lacked a certain credibility I simply could not properly relate to Leisel or Rudi, Hans or Rosa and in particular Max Vandenburg, each of whom left me slightly unconvinced as to their authenticity as believable people.”

 

We did agree that the book told an important story about man’s inhumanity to man and it is a book that we would recommend to other people, especially young adults.

Andy Moir


Nora Webster by Colm Toíbín - July 2016

 

At our July meeting we discussed Nora Webster by the Irish writer Colm Toíbín.  The novel is set in the late 1960s and early 1970’s in Enniscorthy, a small town in County Wexford in Ireland. 

 

It tells the story of Nora Webster whose husband Maurice, a school teacher and well respected member of the community, has just died leaving Nora a widow with four children and not enough money. The novel describes how Nora slowly and with difficulty rebuilds her life in a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business and which is both claustrophobic and supportive at the same time.

 

In the background to Nora’s story the troubles begin to impinge from north of the border. Nora's husband had a history of involvement with Fianna Fáil politics, and now her daughter is taking part in protests in Dublin.

 

Colm Toíbín has drawn closely on his own mother's life as material for the novel and has probably put much of his young self into Donal, Nora's third child, who is a moody incommunicative boy who stammers and sees the world through his camera.

 

As is often the case the groups views on the book varied enormously, a majority enjoyed the book and made comments like “Lots of the book really resonates with my own memories of my Irish family from Limerick” or “A very subtle writer using brilliant dialogue”.

 

However other members of the group made comments like “Didn’t enjoy it and felt let down” or “Beautifully written but a mundane and ordinary story.”

 

As usual it was an interesting and stimulating meeting.

 

Andy Moir


Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee - August 2016

 

At our August meeting we discussed Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee; the book is the first in a trilogy of memoirs that Laurie Lee published in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Cider with Rosie is an account of Lee's childhood in the small village of Slad near Stroud in Gloucestershire in the period during and soon after the First World War.  

 

It chronicles a traditional village life which has now disappeared and relates Laurie Lees experiences of childhood seen from many years later.

 

Rather than being written in strict chronological order, Lee divided the book into thematic chapters describing events such as his schooling or a village outing to Weston-super-Mare.

 

The vast majority of the group really enjoyed the book and commented on Lee’s beautiful and lyrical writing.  Several people had read the book before many years ago and appreciated the opportunity to read it again.  People particularly enjoyed the way Lee recreated a rural England which has now vanished and the many amusing anecdotes that he included.

 

However some members felt that Laurie Lee viewed his childhood world of extreme poverty through “rose-coloured” glasses.

 

 As usual it was an interesting and stimulating meeting.

 

Andy Moir


Please Mr Postman by Alan Johnson - October2016

 

At our September meeting we discussed “Please Mr Postman” by Alan Johnson.  The book is the second volume of Alan Johnson’s memoirs.

 

“Please, Mister Postman” covers Alan Johnson's life from the start of his first marriage, aged 18, the birth of his daughter and the marriage’s end in his mid-30s. These are the years during which he left the slums of west London and moved to a council house on the Britwell estate in Slough, where he worked as a postman, became involved in his trade union and finally became a fulltime trade union official.

 

We read the first volume of Alan Johnson’s memoirs, “This Boy”, last year and we all really enjoyed it. 

 

We all agreed that “Please, Mister Postman” was interesting as a social history of the period and that the book was well written.  We agreed that the book was written by Alan Johnson rather than by a ghost writer as is the case with some politicians’ memoirs however we were not so unanimous in our view of this book as we had been of his first volume.

 

Whilst some members of the group really enjoyed the book and liked the way he described his job as a postman and his growing involvement in his trade union, others did not enjoy the book as much as “This Boy”.

 

They didn’t find his descriptions of trade union conferences and his political development very interesting and wish that there had been more about his relationship with his wife and children.  People were not surprised that the book ends with Alan Johnson and his wife separating.

 

We were divided as to whether we would want to read “The Long and Winding Road”, the third volume of Alan Johnson’s memoirs.  As usual it was an interesting and stimulating meeting.

 

Andy Moir



The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith - November2016

At our October meeting we discussed “The careful use of compliments” by Alexander McCall Smith.  McCall Smith is a prolific writer of novels and he has published more than 52 for adults and 28 for children. He is most well known for his “The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency” series, of which he has written 17 novels and they have been made into a TV series.

 

We read the fourth in his series of ten novels which feature Isabel Dalhousie who is a philosopher living in Edinburgh.  The group frequently has differing opinions of the books we read but this time we had unusually varied opinions about the book.

 

One member said that “I didn’t like the book at all, it was pure hack writing” and another said “It was not my cup of tea, coffee or Sangria. I found the plot, if you can call it that, to be ridiculous, the characters unconvincing and Isabel an insufferable bore.”

 

However another said that “I really enjoyed the book and love the way he writes and especially enjoy his descriptions of Edinburgh” and another said “It should be read by the warm fireside on a winter afternoon with a cup of tea and a Scottish shortbread.  A pleasant light read.”

 

As usual it was an interesting, enjoyable and good-natured meeting.

 

Andy Moir


There but for the by Ali Smith - November2016

 

At our November meeting we discussed “There but for the” by the Scottish novelist Ali Smith.  

 

The novel revolves around Miles Garth, a guest at dinner party, who goes upstairs and locks himself in the host’s spare bedroom and refuses to leave. He becomes a minor celebrity with crowds gathering outside to try and catch a glimpse of him at the window and people renaming him as Milo and starting to sell merchandise with this name on.

 

The book is divided into four main narrative parts each told by a different person who has come into contact with Miles in the past.

As frequently happens with our group we had wildly differing opinions about the book, leading to an animated, interesting and friendly discussion.

 

Our opinions varied from

 

“I tried but gave up at page 68.  Meaningless pretentious words, the writer just trying to be clever and different”

To

“I enjoyed every page of this wonderfully told story. Ali Smith is a word-craftsman and she makes each page, with its clever juxtaposition of words and ideas a constant source of wonder and amusement.”

 

Another enjoyable and stimulating afternoon.

Andy Moir


Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - December2016

At our December meeting we discussed Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  The novel was published in 1966 by the Dominican born author Jean Rhys.  Wide Sargasso Sea is written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's famous novel Jane Eyre which was published in 1847. 

Wide Sargasso Sea attempts to give a back-story to the "madwoman in the attic" who Jane Eyre learns about after going to work for Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. 

The novel is split into three parts. Part One takes place in Jamaica and is narrated by Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress.  It describes her childhood experiences, including her mother's mental instability and her disabled brother's tragic death. 

Part Two alternates between the points of view of Antoinette and her new husband, who is never named (but if you have read Jane Eyre you know that it is Mr Rochester) during their time in Dominica.  It describes the disintegration of their marriage due to Rochester’s suspicions, Rochester’s adultery and Antoinette’s descent into madness. 

Part Three is narrated from the perspective of Antoinette, renamed Bertha by her husband, during her period confined to "the attic" of Thornfield Hall. 

The majority of the group enjoyed the book but some people found the story difficult to follow because of the changes of narrator and you needed to have read Jane Eyre first in order to make sense of the story. 

We agreed that it was a very dark and sad book, perhaps reflecting the fact that the author suffered from severe depression throughout much of her life.

 We agreed that the book was very atmospheric and painted a very vivid picture of the natural beauty of the West Indies and one member who had spent a year doing VSO in the West Indies after university said that it brought back many memories of her experiences. 

Another interesting afternoon discussion.

Andy Moir

 

 

 


This page last edited on 01 January 2017