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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.

Howards End by E M Forster - August 2019

At our August meeting we discussed Howards End by E M Forster.  The novel was published in 1910 and explores the Edwardian class system and the social, political and cultural differences through the story of three families. 


The Schlegel family are intellectuals living on a private income and who do not need to work.  The father and son of the Wilcox family are wealthy, energetic capitalists who have no interest in culture.  Finally there is the Bast family who are poor and from the lower middle class.  Leonard Bast hopes that music and literature would enable him to rise above his lowly position.


The three families meet by chance and the novel describes their interaction and the disastrous result of the arrogant meddling by the Schlegel’s in Leonard Bast’s life.


The majority of the group enjoyed the book and thought that it was very well written, with good characterisation if a little dense in parts.  Forster’s descriptions of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxs was very funny at times and full of satire.  With these characters he was writing about people he had met and knew well.  His description of the Basts was less successful because Forster was writing about a social class of which he little personal experience.


It was particularly poignant reading the novel because, unknown to the characters and the author, in only four years the world described in the book would vanish forever with World War I.


We had a very interesting discussion about the novel and the issues that it raised, but the group was divided on whether they would like to read another book by E M Forster.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - September 2019


At our September meeting we discussed Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Published in 1937, the novel tells the story of two migrant agricultural labourers who move from farm to farm in California in search of work during the Great Depression in the 1930s.


They are George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, who is very strong but mentally disabled.   The two men are close friends and George is Lennie's protector.   They have a dream that one day they will save enough money to buy a farm and settle down on their own piece of land.  Lennie dreams of being able to look after the rabbits on the farm. 


However they are unable to save much money because they have to keep moving from farm to farm because Lennie gets into trouble. They have had to leave their last job because Lennie touched a young woman's dress and would not let go, leading to an accusation of rape.   The novel begins when Lennie and George arrive to start work at a new farm.


A number of people at the meeting had read the book before but everyone agreed that it was well worth reading again.  People made comments like “I couldn’t put it down, it said so many things in so few pages” or “It’s brilliantly written with beautiful description and realistic dialogue”.  Though people also said that “Very moving and tragic” or “it’s very disturbing and it left a lasting impression on me”


The novel is short, less than 100 pages, but it led to one of the most interesting afternoon’s discussion that we have had in the thirteen plus years that the group has been meeting.  It was one of the very few books that we have read that everyone in the group agreed about. 

Munich by Robert Harris - October 2019

At our October meeting we discussed Munich by Robert Harris.  The novel is a fictional account of the notorious Munich conference in September 1938.   Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, was desperate to avoid another World War.  He flew to Munich to meet Hitler, Mussolini and the French Prime Minister to discuss Hitler’s demand that Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, be ceded to Germany.


Twenty-four hours later Chamberlain returned to London having agreed to Hitler’s demands.  When he arrived in London, he waved a piece of paper signed by Hitler and declared “Peace for our time.” Four words that would forever be linked with naïveté and appeasement.


Robert Harris is one of the group’s favourite writers and he always does an enormous amount of research before he writes his historical novels.  This book was no exception. We all enjoyed the book and we agreed that we all learnt a lot of new information about the Munich conference.


The novel includes real people such as Chamberlain and Hitler as well as fictional characters that Harris uses to drive the plot forward.  The one difference of opinion within the group was whether we thought that the fictional plot was believable and whether characters were well developed.


We all had an enjoyable afternoon discussing an interesting book.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - November 2019


At our November meeting we discussed “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman.  This is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it tells the story of 29-year-old Eleanor Oliphant. Eleanor works as a finance clerk and is academically intelligent, with a degree in the classics.  However she is isolated and lonely with no friends.


After attending a concert Eleanor becomes enamoured with the singer and believes she is destined to be with him. She also meets Raymond, an IT support worker at her firm and is initially very rude to him.  The novel describes how Eleanor and Raymond’s friendship develops and the novel slowly reveals the traumatic events in Eleanor’s childhood that had led her being a social misfit.


Most of the group really enjoyed the novel.  One member said that it was easy to read and that they laughed out loud in places and another described it as a modern classic.  The novel raised a number of important issues and the group had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion.


The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'brien - December 2019

At our December meeting we discussed “The Little Red Chairs” by Edna O’Brien.  The novel starts when a mysterious stranger, Dr Vlad, arrives in a small village in the west of Ireland. Dr Vlad comes from the Balkans and claims to be a New Age faith healer.  Many of the villagers, especially the women, fall under his spell.  He is then revealed to be a notorious war criminal and is arrested and sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.   The novel describes the impact this revelation has especially on Fidelma who leaves the village and finally confronts him in the Hague.


The majority of the group didn’t enjoy the novel and some people didn’t finish it.  One member said “I found this book very disjointed and no real flow to it. In some parts confusing and in some parts horrific, the graphic descriptions of the war crimes and the forced abortion were all a too much, the atrocities staying with me like a nightmare.”


However a minority of the group thought that it was an important novel and a member said “I think it is a very impressive book both, in the beauty of her writing, and the ideas she explores. …The scene is set for mystery and mysticism and the great myth which is at the centre of the novel.  Like the legends of old this is not an easy read.”


As usual the group had an interesting and wide-ranging discussion and we had time for mince pies and chocolates since this was our pre-Christmas meeting.




This page last edited on 31 December 2019