University of the Third Age 

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2017 Book Reviews
 


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - January 2017

 

At our January meeting we discussed “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley.  The novel, written in the early nineteenth century, recounts the story of a young man, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a giant sentient creature in his laboratory and then rejects his creation.  The unnamed creature subsequently exacts a terrible revenge on his creator.

 

Most members of the group had not read the novel before but we all thought we knew it from the many TV and film adaptions.  However, we were all surprised how different the original story is from its portrayal in popular culture.

 

 Most members of the group enjoyed the novel but some members found the story very disturbing.  We agreed that we felt far more sympathy for the so called “monster” than we did for his creator Victor Frankenstein.  

 

Another interesting afternoon discussion.

 

Andy Moir


An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris - February 2017

At our February meeting we discussed “An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris.  The novel is an historical thriller which tells the true story of the French Army officer Georges Picquart as he struggles to expose the truth about the evidence that resulted in Alfred Dreyfus, a French Officer, being imprisoned on Devil's Island for life for spying for Germany.

 

Upon being promoted to run the Statistical Section, the top secret department of French military intelligence, Georges Picquart begins to discover that the evidence used to convict Alfred Dreyfus of espionage, is flimsy at best.

 As he investigates further he discovers that the military and falsified much of the evidence. Moreover, the spy who actually passed the information to the Germans is still operating.

Warned off the investigation by his superiors, Picquart persists, risking his career and his life to free an innocent man from unjust imprisonment.

Most of the group thought that they already knew about the Dreyfus Affair, Emile Zola’s involvement with his J’accuse, and the shocking anti-Semitism involved. However, after reading the book we appreciated how bad the scandal really was and the lengths the French army went to hide their initial mistakes.   

 

Whilst a few people thought that the book was too long most of us agreed that it was very well written, compelling read.  Robert Harris clearly did an enormous amount of research to enable him to write an excellent fictionalised account that includes many of the terrible, shocking facts. 

 

Another interesting afternoon discussion.


Andy Moir


The Outcast by Sadie Jones - March 2017

At our March meeting, we discussed “The Outcast” by Sadie Jones.  The novel is set in the 1950s in Surrey and London and tells the story of Lewis Aldridge.

 When he is ten years old Lewis goes on a picnic with his mother and witnesses her drowning.  His emotionally distant father struggles to deal with the situation and soon remarries.  Lewis is sent off to public school. 

As an adolescent, Lewis is taunted about the circumstances surrounding his mother's death and begins to self-harm. He subsequently sets the local church on fire and spends time in prison for committing arson. On his release from prison he returns home and has to face all the unresolved issues arising from his mother’s death.

A small majority of the group liked the book but as often happens with our group people’s opinions of the book varied enormously.  One member said that it was an enjoyable, compelling and well-written book whilst another person said that they didn’t enjoy it at all and that it was a cold unpleasant cruel dark book.

 

Despite our differences, it was another interesting and good-natured afternoon’s discussion.


Andy Moir

Americanah by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - May 2017

At our May meeting, we discussed “Americanah” by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  The novel tells the story of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, who meet at school in Nigeria and fall in love.  Ifemelu wins a scholarship and goes to the to the United States to attend university.  Obinze, son of a professor, had hoped to join her in the US but he is denied a US visa and he goes to London instead. He is eventually deported back to Nigeria as an illegal immigrant after his visa expires.

On his return to Nigeria Obinze has becomes a wealthy property developer, marries and has a child.  Ifemelu becomes successful in the United States as a blogger about racism in the USA but she eventually decides to return to Nigeria.    After Ifemelu returns the two meet again after many years apart.

The group have read two previous novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of which are set in Nigeria, which we all enjoyed but our response to this novel was much more mixed.

We all agreed that she writes very well and there were some interesting observations about American and Nigerian culture. And some members really enjoyed the novel but a majority felt that the novel was too long, didn’t have strong enough story and there was too much “whinging”.  

Despite our differences, it was another interesting and good-natured afternoon’s discussion.

 


Deaf Sentence by 
David Lodge - June 2017

At our June meeting we discussed the novel Deaf Sentence by David Lodge.  The novel about Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics who lives with his second wife, "Fred," in a northern British town. He is becoming increasingly deaf, and, although he wears hearing aids his social interactions - even those with Fred - are fraught with difficulty and occasional hilarious misunderstandings. His deafness is at the centre of the novel which is an often funny, but ultimately serious look at aging, disability, and mortality.


Bates is at loose ends since he took early retirement. His wife is busy with her successful interior decorating business, his adult children live elsewhere. He considers himself a "house husband" and does not really enjoy it. His aged, widowed father insists on living alone in London although he cannot be trusted to take care of himself without endangering his life and Bates visits him dutifully once a month with a mixture of dread, obligation, and guilty relief when it is over. Bates meets a young American female graduate student at a party and his hearing difficulties lead to a series of misunderstandings.

The group was almost unanimous in enjoying the book and most people said that they would like to read another one of David Lodge’s novels.  One member said that “It was quite refreshing to read something that actually made me laugh”.  Whilst said “I like the way he focuses on serious issues in a non-preachy way and he uses humour to great effect to provide contrast and to lighten the mood.”

Another enjoyable afternoon. 


Stoner by John Williams - July 2017

At our July meeting we discussed the novel Stoner by John Williams.  When the novel first was published in 1965 it sold fewer than 2,000 copies and was soon out of print.  It was republished forty years later and became a literary success selling hundreds of thousands of copies and became Waterstones' Book of the Year in 2012. 

The novel tells the story of the life of William Stoner who is born on a small farm in Missouri in 1891.  He goes to the University of Missouri as an agriculture student but whilst there he falls in love with English Literature and eventually becomes a Professor of Literature at the university.  The novel follows William Stoner's undistinguished career as the university, the unpleasant workplace politics, his unhappy marriage to Edith and his brief affair with his colleague Katherine. 

 The majority of the group enjoyed the book and thought that John Williams wrote clearly and beautifully. We thought that the book was partly autobiographical since the author had a university career which was very like Stoner’s. 

We sympathised with Stoner and were moved by his death at the end of the book but we were frustrated by Stoner’s passivity and his inability to assert himself. 

Another interesting and enjoyable afternoon.


The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse - August 2017

The group met to discuss last month’s choice, The Taxidermist’s Daughter and as is often the case, opinions differed as to the merit or otherwise of this Kate Mosse novel.

 

It came as a surprise to this reader that at least half of those present either skipped in their entirety or only partly read those passages that described in some detail the preparatory work required when preparing a bird to be professionally stuffed, which they found unpleasant.

 

The story divided opinion fairly equally, with those in favour appreciating the story, the setting and geographical description of that part of West Sussex and in particular, the way the author conveyed the severity of the storm that raged throughout the narrative.

 

However, there was an equal number who felt the story was far-fetched and unconvincing as a tale of horror and equally unconvincing in the delineation of some of the characters, particularly the ten-year old Davey and the central character Connie.

 

Some of those who enjoyed the book made a favourable comparison to that of to the author’s better known Labyrinth trilogy, others found the book dark, confusing and puzzling.

 

Altogether, a lively and enjoyable discussion of a book that divided opinion right down the middle.

Harry Franklin


 Star Island by Carl Hiaasen - September 2017

At our September meeting we discussed the novel Star Island by Carl Hiaasen.   The book is one of a series of novels by the author written which are set in Florida and feature a cast of very colourful characters.   

Hiaasen was an investigative reporter on the Miami Herald before he became a novelist and his novels satirise the corrupt political and business culture of the state and the destruction of the natural environment.  

Most of the group didn’t like the book and several people didn’t finish reading it.  One member said that the book was “nasty and sleazy with rotten language”. 

However a minority of members enjoyed the book and found it both funny and a clever satire of American celebrity culture.


Andy Moir


 Wild Swans by Jung Chang - October 2017

 At our October meeting we discussed Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  The book is a family history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in China.  

The book starts by relating the story of Chang's grandmother who from the age of two had bound feet. Her father made a her concubine to a high-ranking warlord with whom she had a daughter, Jung Chang’s mother. After the warlord died Chang's grandmother fled with her baby to her parents' home, sending false word to her husband's family that the child had died. Eventually she married a much older doctor.

 

When Jung Chang's mother was fifteen she began working for the Communist Party of China and Mao Zedong's Red Army. As the Revolution progressed she rose through the ranks. She met and married a high-ranking officer.  They had several children including Jung Chang.

 

The Cultural Revolution started when Jung Chang was a teenager and she enthusiastically joined the Red Guards and was sent into the countryside. Chang's father became a target for the Red Guards when he mildly but openly criticised Mao. Due to his treatment at the hands of the Red Guards her father’s health deteriorated and he eventually died. Jung Chang became disillusioned with Mao and the Cultural Revolution. At the end of the Cultural Revolution Jung Chang returned home and worked hard to gain a place at university and whilst she was there Mao died. At university Chang studied English. After her graduation, she won a scholarship to study in England.

 

We all agreed that it was an important book giving an insight into a turbulent time in Chinese history.  It was also a difficult book to read because of the harrowing descriptions of what happened to Jung Chang and her mother and grandmother.  The only criticism of the book, other than its length and the huge list of characters, was that some people were sceptical about how the author could have known about her mother and grandmother’s lives in such detail.


Andy Moir


The girl who fell from the sky by Simon Mawer - November 2017

At our November meeting we discussed “The girl who fell from the sky” by Simon Mawer.  The novel is set during World War II and tells the story of Marian Sutro, a clever bilingual young woman (her mother is French) living in England who is recruited by the Special Operations Executive. She is taught how to send messages in code, operate in enemy territory, jump out of an aeroplane, survive interrogation and kill. Once she has successfully completed her training she is parachuted into south-west France.

 

Her official mission is to work with the French resistance but her real secret mission is to travel to Paris and find a childhood friend, a French nuclear physicist, with whom she was in love.  She must try to persuade him to join colleagues who have already fled to Britain to work on the nuclear weapons programme and, if he agrees, she must somehow arrange his escape.

 

The majority of the group enjoyed the book and found it an easy to read thriller which painted a vivid picture of occupied France. 

 

However a minority of the group found the story far-fetched and lacking in tension and credibility.


Andy Moir


A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson - December 2017

At our December meeting we discussed A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson.  The novel tells the story of Teddy Todd who started work in the 1930s, like his father, in a bank.  When WWII begins Teddy joins the RAF and becomes an RAF bomber pilot.   

The novel then continues to tell the story of Teddy’s life after the war when Teddy marries his childhood sweetheart Nancy. They have a daughter Viola and she has two children.  The novel appears to end with Teddy dying an old man in a nursing home in 2012. 

But there is a twist at the end of the book where the author asks did Teddy really survive the war or did he die in 1994 during a bombing raid on Nuremberg?  

A majority of the group enjoyed the book and particularly the chapters that dealt with Teddy’s wartime experiences especially the vivid descriptions of the bombing raids on Germany.   

A number of people who enjoyed the book were upset by the twist at the end and we had a discussion about what it symbolised.  Was the author trying to show how terrible war is by describing the life that Teddy might have had if he hadn’t died so young?  

However a minority of the group did not like the novel and didn’t finish it. They were especially uncomfortable with the author’s description of some of the female characters, especially of Viola

Andy Moir


 

 

 

 


This page last edited on 30 December 2017