These are the books we read in 2017. If anybody has any more reviews, please send them in.
September 2017: Imperium by Robert Harris
When Tiro, the confidential secretary of a Roman senator, opens the door to a terrified stranger on a cold November morning, he sets in motion a chain of events which will eventually propel his master into one of the most famous courtroom dramas in history.
The stranger is a Sicilian, a victim of the island’s corrupt Roman governor, Verres. The senator is Cicero, a brilliant young lawyer and spellbinding orator, determined to attain imperium – supreme power in the state.
This is the starting-point of Robert Harris’s most accomplished novel to date. Compellingly written in Tiro’s voice, it takes us inside the violent, treacherous world of Roman politics, to describe how one man – clever, compassionate, devious, vulnerable – fought to reach the top.
From the Colyford Tuesday group
Both members really enjoyed the book which, although fictional, had a balanced amount of historical content. The fact the story was narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave who was his shorthand secretary, added an extra dimension and how he developed his use of shorthand was interesting and key to the story and Cicero’s success.
It was astonishing how similar the workings behind the politics of Ancient Rome hold many parallels with modern times. Bribery, swindling and widespread corruption leading up to elections that were held up as democratic!
The life of Cicero was interesting, especially how he spent time learning his trade as an orator and managed to rise to the top even though he had not been born into money.
The story held the reader on tenterhooks in several places, making us hope that Cicero would succeed in his trials supporting the truth. However later in the book he did descend to using lowly tactics, perhaps unworthy of him?
What struck us was that the saying ‘behind every man lies a strong woman’ (or vice versa these days)! was very true in Cicero’s case. Often it was his wife, Terentia, who showed her clever mind in problem solving, leaving Cicero to carry it out.
We felt that the novel could have benefited from a Glossary of terms and a list of characters as often we had to refer back in the story to pick up the links between characters.
Overall it was written in an excellent style, engaging the reader throughout.
Score from 2 people 7/10
From the Colyford Thursday group
Of the 6 who met to discuss ‘Imperium’, only 2 had actually finished the book AND liked it! Of the remaining 4, 2 had either given up or were still plodding through and 2 had not even been inspired to buy the book!
Having said that, the discussion was lively and the ‘loved it’ members enjoyed it for its historical background from which they learnt much about Roman times. They both read it as an ‘unstoppable’ read (one on holiday and one on a train journey). It was felt that it was not the sort of book one read in ‘snippets’.
Both felt it WAS heavy going to start with but got increasingly addictive as it progressed. They enjoyed the political shenanigans and surprisingly felt it was not so much different to modern day politics, the Romans had a democracy, but were (some) corrupt, so an interesting comparison. Overall, a good way to learn about history through a story.
On the other hand – I personally gave up after 150 pages preferring a lighter read. The history and story aspect appealed but I found some of the content hard going. It was just not my sort of book !
We were all distressed about the amount of innocent killing that took place and were amazed about the amount of time (10 days) that an opening speech took in a court case !
We included the score from an absent member and although one score was 9/10 the overall score came out at 6/10.
From Jonnie at the Exeter group
When Imperium by Robert Harris was suggested as the next book I cannot say I was full of enthusiasm. The historical novel genre is one with which I struggle. Not more Philippa Gregory romantic dross I thought? Well actually not at all, a rather pleasant surprise which after all is exactly what book club is all about.
This is the story of Cicero the great Roman lawyer, politician and orator seen through the eyes of his most loyal and trusty slave cum secretary Tiro. What quickly becomes evident is that Robert Harris is a gifted story-teller keeping one turning the pages. He paints a picture of a driven and calculating Roman whose moral fibre can be swayed as a reed in the breeze depending on whether the direction of the wind is favourable to him. He will stand up to anyone in a court of law but less readily to his wife who he is indebted to for her financial backing. However this relationship matures throughout the novel and becomes somewhat enduring & even romantic towards the latter stages.
There are epic legal battles that unfold within the pages involving bribery and corruption and often culminating in a final speech with a twist or fatal blow to the opposition. In fact the legal arguments and orations are some of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. In addition to this his research and knowledge of the politics and society of Rome is extensive providing the reader with great insight into the historical context. Only occasionally do you feel he is hand-holding the reader in order to explain the setting.
From the Honiton group
We mostly agreed that this was a manly book. We all enjoyed the history contained within, some hadn’t prior knowledge of Roman history.
Some found the book a bit gruesome with the way the crucifixions were described.
It was a bit difficult remembering who was who with the names not rolling off the tongue. Although we liked the links with names and the familiar words in our modern English language.
We liked the development of Cicero and Terentia’s relationship, how she became more of a focal point in his life.
We were disappointed that he didn’t free Tiro.
Some of are going to read the rest of them, or have already started with Lustrum.
Would recommend it only to certain people who like factually laden books.
All of our members started the book and all will finish it which says a lot for the book!
8 out of 10
May 2017: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein
In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.
From the Exeter group
This epic novel exposing the recent history of China was beautifully written. The narrative was played out through the eyes of Li-ling (Marie) and her teenage relative Ai-Ming. Gradually through their conversations and reading of the Book of Records their joint history is woven into an endearing and compelling book.
The story portraits the suppression of the Chinese People, the Cultural Revolution and the student occupation of Tiananmen Square in graphic detail. It was reflected as to how compliant the people were to the Government’s wishes in respect to where people lived, their occupation and separation from relatives. Chairman Mao was given a God-like status by the people and his doctrines were followed to the letter. Fortunes and reputations were made and destroyed at the will of the Party. Retribution was harsh as demonstrated by Swirl and Wen the Dreamer being sent to desolate labour camps.
However passive resistance was evident most vocally with the wonderfully robust Big Mother but also within the book group in Shanghai and most poignantly by He Luting (Director of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music) when uttering under intense abuse “Shame on you for lying”.
The characters within the book were full of life and colour and portrayed with endearing charm. We considered whether we should take up the custom of descriptive names making life a little more interesting?
Music was a strong theme of the book. Several of the characters had an absolute love of music, Sparrow the composer, Zhuli the violinist, Kai the pianist. Thein’s descriptions of musical pieces did not fatigue and were if anything more rapturous with each subsequent telling. This seemed to exaggerate the effect of the destruction of the instruments and talents of the conservatory leading Zhuli to take her own life.
Another strong theme was the admiration and love between Sparrow and Kai again beautifully and delicately presented by Thein.
In conclusion an enlightening, educational and memorable read.
March 2017: Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life’s hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.
From the ??? group
The majority of readers enjoyed the book except for one who described it as bland. We were all delighted that the book was only around 300 pages, and an easy read, to be able to finish it in time for the meeting before the end of term! Once started, it was a captivating read.
It was well written with clear story lines, despite the complexities of characters’ relationships’ and moving backwards and forwards in time. The historical facts from the second world war and how Switzerland featured in Europe then and now were interesting, though more facts would have been welcomed by some. The book showed how parents can set their offspring into the direction their parents want, though the outcome is not necessarily achieved.
It was felt that Emilie restricted the emotional development of Gustav and that she blamed her husband for problems in her life that were of her own making. Despite this, empathy was felt towards Gustav and Emilie because it was suggested that Gustav probably reminded his mother of his father, which is why she found it difficult to warm/relate to her son. Sad that she was distant from him until the end of her life, even when she had the opportunity to put things right.
Anton was rather spoilt and for most of his life he tried to hide his true feelings about being gay through his many encounters with women. He was volatile, rich and a talented piano player. Everything that Gustav was not.
During their trip to Paris, it was felt that Gustav was indulging Lottie, doing the things he thought his father would have done had he been alive.
Overall score: 7/10
From the Colyford Thursday group
We all found this sad, gentle book very easy to read. However, most of us didn’t enjoy it all that much and the score it achieved was just a 6.
The book was centred around Gustav, a boy who grows up in post war Switzerland, and the relationships he has with his mother and his friends.
We could all sympathise with Gustav from the start but took a strong dislike to his unloving and cruel mother Emilie. The story did give you the background as to why Emilie was the way she was, having such an unloving, cruel mother herself and enduring an unhappy marriage with a man that she had ensnared following a kiss at a local fete but with whom she had very little in common. However, we found it hard to accept that following the heartbreak of losing her first baby Gustav she failed to love and bond with her second baby Gustav. She showed him little emotion and brought him up to have a stiff upper lip by always telling him he must learn to master himself. She said he should be like Switzerland and stay neutral.
It was good to see his relationship with his kindergarten friend Anton blossom despite the two boys being so different to one another, with Gustav being staid, poor and a bit slow and Anton being volatile, rich and talented. Emilie didn’t like Anton or his family because they were Jews. She blamed all Jews for causing her husband to lose his job and for her marriage to break down. Anton’s family took Gustav under their wing and Anton’s mother showed Gustav far more kindness that his own mother ever did.
We all found the games the boys played at the abandoned sanatorium a little bizarre. They did however give the author an opportunity to portray a scene which gave an early indication that the boys might have homosexual feelings towards one another.
Some of us felt that the story would have been better if it had included more about the boys’ lives as teenagers and young adults. Jumping straight to their middle-aged selves made explaining how they got to where they were unnecessarily brief. It was good however to see that Gustav had managed to start a successful hotel business with the help of the jam-jar money.
We all liked Lottie and thought she was a vivid, larger than life character who grew old rather disgracefully. The old Colonel also appealed to us and we thought it funny that he came from Sidmouth! It was disappointing that Gustav only inherited the playing cards and not a pot of money.
The book did end happily if somewhat predictably with the two friends finally becoming lovers and living together with Anton’s mother. It was heart-warming to see Gustav finally having someone to really love him back. Up to this point Gustav’s life of self-mastery and neutrality so encouraged by his mother had given him a seemingly weary, jaded and sexless existence with an “intolerable pain in his heart”.
From the Exeter group
The group broadly enjoyed reading Rose Tremain’s ‘The Gustav Sonata’. The narrative jumps back and forth in the period from the 1930s to the 1990s, focusing on episodes, set mainly in Switzerland, of Gustav’s and his parents’ lives.
His parents, Emilie and Erich, have married and then separated after Erich loses his job as assistant chief of police. The circumstances of this are the result of his choosing to falsely register Jews as arriving in Switzerland before a deadline after which new arrivals were to be returned to their fate. Tremain portrays Erich’s decision and its consequences very effectively. Neutrality in times of strife still leaves plenty of room for agonising moral choices. There was much discussion in the group as to how one might have behaved in Erich’s position.
Emilie cuts a disagreeable figure for much of the book. She is bitter about Erich’s decision to put conscience ahead of his marriage and despite this describes him as a hero to young Gustav. Her clear dislike of the Jews impacts Gustav’s childhood friendship with Anton, a Jewish boy from a much more affluent background. The group varied on how unsympathetically Emilie’s character was drawn, with some more negative than others.
Gustav’s friendship with Anton plays a central role in the book and Tremain nicely contrasts their personalities. Gustav is full of the ‘self-mastery’ drummed into him by his mother, whilst Anton is a much more volatile personality. As their childhood friendship extends into many years of adulthood, Gustav is left bereft when Anton leaves their small town in search of success and fame in Geneva as a pianist. Anton shows little interest in Gustav whilst away, but then desperately seeks his help as his own life descends into crisis.
The book concludes with Gustav and Anton living together in rural beauty near to Davos, a place that figures earlier in the narrative as holiday home to rare spell of happiness for the Emilie and Erich and to the later adventures of Gustav and Anton as children. A neat ending.
Those in the group who had read other of Tremain’s books did not regard it as her best work, but the average score given was still a high 7.5.
From the Honiton group
Some thought it a book about misery and friendship.Dour and cheerless.
Some liked it from the historical aspect and thought it was well written.
We thought it reflective of the era with the cherry tree being the only bright thing in their lives just like the war era being bleak with little to be cheerful about.
We liked the pre- and post-war setting in Switzerland.
5 out of 10
February 2017: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating…
From the Exeter group
We met in the Fat Pig to discuss I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh.
The book was generally well received and felt to be a compelling read. The sort of book that would make a good holiday read or night-time read that could be read piecemeal with relatively short chapters and a plot that was not too intellectually challenging although with interesting twists and turns.
Part One of the book had the feeling of being a run of the mill detective novel until the arrest of Jenna that none of us had predicted. This turned the direction of the novel completely on it’s head and thereafter became much more interesting. We all agreed that the description of the predatory male and the abused partner felt very realistic. The control Ian exerted upon Jenna and his manipulative behaviour was well portrayed as was Jenna’s fear and reactionary self-preservation that this invoked. The fundamental insecurity and jealousy of Ian was also evident.
There were other aspects of the book that were not so believable. The fact that Jenna ended up in a twee cottage on the coast with a very accommodating caravan site hostess who befriended her and an eligible beau in the shape of veterinarian Patrick just up the road seems too neat….but I suppose she deserved some luck at this point.
The police officers seemed too type-cast and yes, of course workaholic DI Ray Stevens happens to fall for the young attractive and enthusiastic DC Kate Evans as a welcome distraction from the domestic troubles at home. Although he does guiltily retrieve himself before straying to far.
It was also interesting that Jenna should fall for and not recognise an abusive male which was mirrored by the relationship between her mother and father. This caused a rift between her and her sister with whom she was extremely close. One wonders in such a close sibling environment Eve could not have found a way of enlightening Jenna as to the nature of their parents marriage.
The end of the book was a little too neat. Did it really need to be Ian’s child that was the victim of the hit and run? A little too neat and somewhat of a coincidence. And finally once acquitted why on earth would Jenna (or the police allow her to) travel back to her Welsh idyll knowing full well that Ian was at large and knew of her whereabouts? At this point we are beginning to wonder about Jenna’s sanity, further reinforced when she sends Patrick off on some aimless errand to inevitably face her demon alone. However good triumphs over evil in the clifftop climax as the sea claims the wife-beating deviant. But wait there is more, just as you felt you could lay this thriller to rest and move on to your next unread literary work, no body is found … could there be a sequel “I Thought I Let You Go” or “I Let You Go Again” or “I Let You Go Go” …