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2019 Book Reviews

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens - January 2019


At our January meeting we discussed The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.  The Pickwick Papers was Dickens’ first novel and includes humour, well drawn characters and a sense of social justice, features which are also found in his later and more famous books.  It is a long book, so we had two months to read it.


The views of the group members were very divergent and a number of people did not finish reading the novel.  People who didn’t enjoy the book made comments like “I found The Pickwick Papers was virtually unreadable due to the flowery Victorian English and the tortuous plots of the chapters. Dickens uses a dozen words when he could have used three” or “Too long, drawn out and slow”.


However other group members really enjoyed the book and found it to be laugh-out-loud funny, an interesting social history of the early nineteenth century before the arrival of the railways and that it contained vivid pictures of the corruption of the courts, the debtor’s prisons and of parliamentary elections before the 1831 Reform Act abolished rotten boroughs.  


Members who enjoyed the novel made comments like “Loved it, Dickens had a marvellous command of the English Language” or “Loved all the characters and Dickens sense of social justice. Enjoyed rereading it.”


Despite our disagreements the meeting was friendly and good-natured, and we all enjoyed it.



Andy Moir

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes - February 2019


At our February meeting we discussed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.  The novel is a gripping fictionalised account of Shostakovich’s life living under Stalin and his successors in the USSR.


The first section is set during Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1930s and describes extremely well what it must have been like to live there and to be in constant fear of arrest and execution.  Shostakovich narrowly avoided being implicated in a fabricated plot against Stalin which would have led to his probable execution, only because his interrogator was himself purged.


In the later sections of the book Shostakovich’s life was no longer at risk, but his integrity was.  The novel illustrated how even the USSR’s most famous living composer was forced to make terrible compromises in order to be able to continue to write music and to get it performed. 


Unusually for our group everyone at the meeting had enjoyed the book and found it very interesting and moving.  One member said that “at times I felt that I was inside Shostakovich’s head”.  Another member said “You can hear the irony and protest in his music, an incredible book I couldn’t put down.”

Andy Moir

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - March 2019

At our March meeting we discussed Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  Almost without exception, members appreciated the skill of Kate Atkinson’s writing, but again, with almost one voice, they also felt that the novel was both too long and too convoluted. There were those who didn’t finish the book. In particular, the skipping from one calendar period to another, without any apparent link, frustrated some readers and puzzled others.


There was praise for the section of the book that dealt with the Blitz which was regarded as both horrifying in its description of the death and destruction but realistic in its telling. Several members felt that certain sections of the story could well have been omitted because they felt them to be irrelevant to the main story.


The several different “lives” of Ursula, the main character, left some readers wondering which, if any, was the true one. Did she have a child after being raped as a teenager? Did she have a child when married to a Nazi officer and living throughout the war in Germany?  Or was Ursula the spinster that was portrayed at the end of the book?


A good read in all, but a hard slog for most.

Harry Franklin

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy - April 2019

At our March meeting we discussed Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.  It was Thomas Hardy's fourth novel and his first major literary success. The novel is the first to be set in Wessex, a fictional area of rural southwest England in early Victorian times.


The novel includes themes of love, honour, and betrayal, against a backdrop of the seemingly idyllic, but often harsh, realities of a farming community in Victorian England. It describes the life and relationships of Bathsheba Everdene with her lonely neighbour William Boldwood, the faithful shepherd Gabriel Oak, and the thriftless soldier Sergeant Troy.


Three members of the group had first read the novel as an O level English Literature set book more than 50 years ago.  They didn’t enjoy the book as teenagers but on a second reading, along with the majority of other group members, they really enjoyed it.  People liked the descriptions of Wessex countryside and of rural life in the early Victorian period, the well-drawn characters and some of the amusing incidents.


However a minority thought that the book was too wordy for a modern reader and the characters unbelievable.  It was an enjoyable afternoon discussion.


The Children Act by Ian McEwan. - May 2019

At our May meeting we discussed The Children Act by Ian McEwan.  The novel is about Fiona Maye a High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. Whilst she is well respected for her judgements in difficult cases, her marriage of thirty years is going through a crisis.

She is asked to try an urgent case. Adam, a seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents agree with his wishes.

The judge must decide whether the court should overrule a sincerely expressed faith. In the course of reaching a decision she visits Adam in the hospital.  The meeting has a dramatic effect on both their lives.


Most of the group enjoyed the book and found it well written, easy to read and with an interesting and thought-provoking plot.  People enjoyed the insight it gave into the difficult decisions that a High Court judge had to make.


The book provoked one of the longest and most interesting discussions that the group has had. Especially when we discussed an absent member’s view that “Ian McEwan is a closet misogynist”.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - June 2019 


At our June meeting we discussed Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  The novel was published anonymously in 1813 and it follows the character development of Elizabeth Bennet, the dynamic heroine of the book, who learns about the repercussions of hasty judgments and eventually comes to appreciate the difference between superficial goodness and actual goodness. The novel is filled with comedy and depicts the manners, education, marriage and money during the early nineteenth century  in Great Britain.


Mr. Bennet of Longbourn estate has five daughters, but because his property is entailed it can only be passed from male heir to male heir. Consequently, Mr. Bennet's family will be destitute upon his death. Because his wife also lacks an inheritance, it is imperative that at least one of the girls marry well to support the others upon his death, which is what drives the plot.


 Jane Austen's opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife", is a sentence filled with irony and sets the tone for the book. The novel revolves around the importance of marrying for love, not simply for economic gain or social prestige, despite the communal pressure to make a good (i.e. wealthy) match.


The views of the group were surprisingly varied with some of people saying that Pride and Prejudice is their favourite novel which they have read many times. They thought that it contained well drawn characters, an interesting plat and very funny conversations.  However other members did not enjoy the novel and some people did not even finish it.


Another very interesting and good-natured afternoon’s discussion. 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry - July 2019

At our July meeting we discussed the Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  Sarah Perry is a local author who grew up in Chelmsford and attended Chelmsford County High School for Girls.


The novel is set in London, Colchester and the Blackwater Estuary during the 1890s and tells the story of Cora, a wealthy young widow from London, William, a vicar in a rural Essex parish and the rumours of a giant serpent in the Blackwater. 


The book had received rave reviews and we were looking forward to reading it, but whilst some members enjoyed the book the majority of the group were a little disappointed in it.


We all enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the Essex countryside and the way Sarah Perry captured the atmosphere of late Victorian London.


 However, we felt that the characters were rather one-dimensional and that the author tried to include too many themes, e.g. science versus superstition, religion versus rationality, Victorian housing conditions, medical advances, all of which made the book too long and unfocused.


The group was divided on whether they would like to read another book by Sarah Perry.




This page last edited on 02 August 2019