University of the Third Age 

Chelmsford


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2020 Book Reviews
 


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - January 2020

 

At our January meeting we discussed A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  A Christmas Carol is a short novel, less than a hundred pages long, but it has had a very strong influence on our culture and on the way we celebrate Christmas today. 

 

We all knew the story and the characters, having seen many adaptions of the book, but surprisingly a significant number of us had never read Dicken’s original novel and most of the group who had read the novel read it a long time ago.

 

Almost uniquely for our group we were unanimous in enjoying A Christmas Carol, even the members who are not Dickens’ fans.  As one member said, “I very much enjoyed it, a darn good story well told.”

 

We had a very interesting discussion about the book.  Dickens wrote the novel in order highlight concerns about poverty and injustice in Victorian England but it was pointed out that though the novel was published in 1843 a number of the issues it is concerned with such as homelessness and poverty are still with us today.

 

 

Andy Moir


Upstairs at the party by Linda Grant - February 2020

At our February meeting we discussed Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant.  The novel is narrated by Adele, who was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool in the early 1950s. She goes to York University to study English and the novel tells the story of the friends she met there and how the dramatic events at Adele’s 21st birthday party affected her and her friends for the rest of their lives.

 

Most of the group enjoyed the novel and thought that it was very well written and vividly evoked the 1970s and it made some people nostalgic for their time at university. Whilst it was a novel, we thought that it was based loosely on Linda Grant’s own experience since she was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool in the early 1950s and went to York University to study English.

 

Some members were less keen on the book and felt that it lacked a strong plot and one member said “A bit too much name-dropping for me.  Lots of descriptions of clothes and personal appearance”.

 

It was an interesting meeting which lead to some discussion on how universities have changed since the 1960s and 70s.


The Girl Before by J P Delaney - March 2020

 

Unsurprisingly, given the current situation, there were only nine of us at the March meeting where we discussed The Girl Before by J P Delaney.

 

Whilst most readers appreciated the quality of the writing, no-one expressed whole-hearted satisfaction with the novel. Amongst the comments were that as each sequence of the unrolling of both the main characters narrative was revealed, they were too repetitive of each other.

 

There was a general feeling that all four main protagonists were too manipulative, too “creepy” and deeply unpleasant. What surprised this reader was the acceptance of most members as being technically quite plausible, were the bio-metrics functions that One Folgate Street possessed. There were also reservations concerning the way in which two main characters met identical deaths, which stretched credibility too far. Some readers complained of too much sex in the story, a complaint not shared by this reader!  

 

In summary, a well-written but flawed novel.

 

Harry Franklin


Transcription by Kate Atkinson - April 2020

 

Our successful and enjoyable meeting in April was held using Zoom and it was “attended” by ten members. For the foreseeable future all our book group meeting will be held using Zoom. 

We discussed Transcription by Kate Atkinson at the meeting.  The novel tells the story of  eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong who in 1940 is reluctantly recruited into the murky world of espionage. She joins an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers. She discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever.

Ten years later, now a radio producer of children’s programmes at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past.  The story is full of double agents and you don’t know who is telling the truth.

 

As usual the group’s opinions of the book varied and an interesting discussion occurred.  The group were split roughly 50/50 between those who really enjoyed the book and those who were no keen on it and thought that it wasn’t as good as the other novels we have read by Kate Atkinson.

 


Animal Farm by George Orwell - May 2020

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in May using Zoom and it was “attended” by eleven members and a guest. For the foreseeable future all our book group meeting will be held using Zoom.

 

We discussed Animal Farm by George Orwell at the meeting.  Animal Farm is an allegorical novel first published in England in August 1945.  The book tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. Ultimately, however, the rebellion is betrayed, and the farm ends up in a state as bad as it was before, under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon. The story is based on events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.  George Orwell had difficulty getting the novel published because the Soviet Union was an ally during World War II.


Unusually for our group we were unanimous in our praise for the novel both for the story and for the clear style in which it had been written.  A majority of the group had read it before, often more than 40 years ago, but they all found something new in it on a second reading.

 

A number of people commented that even though the novel was written more than 70 years ago it was still very relevant to the world today.

 

Andy Moir


June 2020

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in June using Zoom and it was “attended” by ten members.  The next book we are due to discuss is North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and because it is a long book we decided to give ourselves two months to read it. So at our June meeting we all talked about one or more books that we have read recently and would recommend to the rest of the group.

 

As you would expect from our group, we had a very varied selection of books recommended to us.  They ranged from contemporary fiction, to science fiction, to historical fiction to non-fiction to poetry to biography.

 

 Liz recommended Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.  

 

Pauline recommended The Ice Cream War by William Boyd, Tombland by C J Sansom and Conversation with friends by Sally Rooney.

 

Brenda recommended The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins.

 

Judith recommended Sun Fall by Jim Al-Khalil and Becoming by Michelle Obama.

 

Glenys recommended The Secret River by Kate Grenfell and Glenys husband Ron recommended A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  

 

Harry recommended Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes.

 

Paul recommended a non-fiction book Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith. 

 

Jenny recommended Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo and the poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas.

 

I recommended the non-fiction book The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands.

 

Two members who weren’t at the meeting also sent in suggestions.  Kay recommended After the End by Clare Mackintosh as well as two other novels I let you go and Let me lie by the same author. Finally Ros recommended On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

 

After we had finished our recommendations Val organised a very enjoyable literary quiz which Brenda won.

 

Andy Moir


July 2020 North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in July using Zoom and it was “attended” by twelve members.  We discussed North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  The novel is set in the 1850s and takes place in London, the New Forest and the fictional industrial town of Milton in the north of England.  Milton is based on Manchester where Elizabeth Gaskell spent her adult life.

 

The novel tells the story of Margaret Hale an 18 year old who is forced to leave the home she loves in the tranquil, rural south, because her father a clergyman has a crisis of conscience and leaves the Church of England.  Margaret and her parents move to Milton where her father has been offered a job as a tutor to a wealthy mill owner Mr Thornton.  At first Margaret is shocked by the brutal world of Milton created by the Industrial Revolution, seeing employers and workers clashing in the first strikes. 

 

As Margaret gets to know both Mr Thornton and Nicholas Higgins, a mill worker and member of the strike committee, her attitudes change and she begins to respect and understand the very different world in which she that she now lives. 

 

The majority of the group really enjoyed the novel and its vivid picture of life in the industrial North in the middle of the 19th century.  One member said “I really liked the description of social issues, the characters were well drawn and the plot believable”.  Whilst another member said “it really makes you glad that you live now with a welfare state and not then”.

 

However as is usual with our group not everyone agreed.  One member said “I did not enjoy the book on page 54 you knew what the outcome would be but you had to read 346 pages for it to happen”.

 

As always it was an enjoyable and stimulating meeting.

 

Andy Moir


August 2020 My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in August using Zoom and it was “attended” by ten members.  We discussed My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.  The book is an autobiography by British naturalist Gerald Durrell. It tells in an exaggerated and sometimes fictionalised way of the years when he lived as a child with his siblings and widowed mother on the Greek island of Corfu between 1935 and 1939. It describes the life of the Durrell family in a humorous manner, and explores the fauna of the island. It is the first and most well-known of Durrell's 'Corfu trilogy.'

 

The majority of the group had already read the book as a teenager and almost everyone enjoyed the book and thought that it was an enjoyable light read during these difficult times.  Some people really enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the island and its wildlife whilst others thought that the descriptions were overlong and that there were too many similes.

 

Two things which we thought had changed since we originally read the book. First was how Gerald, a young boy, could roam all day with no adult supervision, very much like our experience as children.  Second was how our attitude towards wildlife has changed.  Gerald goes round collecting birds eggs, stealing young chicks from their nest and trapping animals and birds which he keeps in cages whilst his elder brother Leslie shoots anything that moves.  All actions which most people now think are wrong if not illegal.

 

As always it was an enjoyable and stimulating meeting. 


September 2020 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in September using Zoom and it was “attended” by twelve members.  We discussed The Remains of the Day by the Nobel prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel tells, in first-person narration, the story of Stevens, an English butler who has dedicated his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington who recently died. 

 

The novel begins in 1956, with Stevens receiving a letter from a former colleague, the housekeeper Miss Kenton, describing her married life, which Stevens believes hints at an unhappy marriage. Furthermore, Darlington Hall is short-staffed and could greatly use a skilled housekeeper like Miss Kenton. Stevens starts to consider paying Miss Kenton a visit. His new employer, a wealthy American, encourages Stevens to borrow his car to take a well-earned vacation. Stevens accepts, and sets out for Cornwall, where Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) lives.

During his journey, Stevens reflects on his unshakable loyalty to Lord Darlington, who had hosted lavish meetings between German sympathizers and English aristocrats in an effort to influence international affairs in the years leading up to World War II.  On the meaning of the term "dignity" and what constitutes a great butler, and on his relationship with his late father, another butler who dedicated his life to service.

 

Ultimately, Stevens is forced to consider Lord Darlington's character and reputation, as well as the true nature of his relationship with Miss Kenton. As the book progresses, evidence mounts of Miss Kenton's and Stevens' past mutual attraction and affection.

 

At the end of the novel Stevens thinks about his lost opportunities, both with Miss Kenton and regarding his decades of selfless service to Lord Darlington, who may not have been worthy of this unquestioning loyalty.

 

We all enjoyed the novel though some people found it a little hard going at first but were pleased that they persevered.  We all thought that it was wonderfully written and the characters well described.  It was a psychological journey as well as a physical journey for the main character Mr Stevens.

 

Whilst there were some humorous incidents in the novel it was a very sad book and one member said that it was the saddest book they had ever read.  

 

The novel generated a very interesting discussion and it was, as always, an enjoyable and stimulating meeting.


 October 2020 Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

We held another successful and enjoyable meeting in October using Zoom and it was “attended” by nine members.  We discussed Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. It was Emma Healey’s first published novel and was a commercial and critical success.  It was subsequently made into a BBC TV film starring Glenda Jackson as the main character Maud. 

 

Maud is an elderly grandmother who is suffering from dementia and she is convinced that her elderly best friend Elizabeth is missing and in terrible danger.  No one will listen to her concerns, so she resolves to discover the truth and save Elizabeth.

The novel also takes us back to when Maud was a teenager and her elder sister, Sukey, vanished in suspicious circumstances.  As Maud searches for her Elizabeth clues emerge that lead her to discover what happened to Sukey.

 

Most people enjoyed the novel but some thought it was rather too long and repetitive. One member said “I enjoyed Elizabeth is Missing and I marvelled at the skill required to make Maud the articulate narrator and the stricken heroine.  I laughed at the list of items that you have to take out with you; glasses, false teeth, hearing aid etc, to proclaim your ‘old duffer’ status but I was saddened by the cruelty that Alzheimer’s brings to Maud and Helen.  For me the book was a little too long but I generally found it beautifully imagined and quite moving.”

 

The novel generated a very interesting discussion and it was, as always, an enjoyable and stimulating meeting.


 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 


This page last edited on 01 November 2020