Our Book Club members’ reviews of the books that we read during 2011 and 2012 make fascinating reading in themselves!
November 2012: Facing The Light by Adele Geras
From the Colyford group
The general consensus amongst those present was that this was an enjoyable, undemanding read – an ideal holiday book. Members thought it would lend itself very well to adaptation for Sunday night TV with its failsafe combination of idyllic setting, opulent clothes, attractive array of characters and dramatic twists and turns.
Most felt that the characters had warmth and that the early parts of the book contained enough hints and snippets about future (and past) events to make it quite a compelling read.
That said, there was some agreement – especially amongst the Kindle readers – that the sheer number of characters led to confusion (particularly when combined with the frequent shifts backwards in time). One member very sensibly addressed this by creating her own family tree to clarify things!
Some members felt the book over long with too much time dedicated to long descriptions of the clothes, the jewellery and the makeup of the principal characters. However others felt that these vivid sections contributed positively to the whole.
Views also varied on some of the personalities in the book – Rilla and Chloe most seeming to polarise opinion. Most were sympathetic to Rilla (especially over being saddled with such a ridiculous name) but others felt her a little self indulgent and selfish. With the exception of Alex & Sean there were very few male characters who readers warmed to. All were agreed that Efe was irredeemably awful and were united in the hope that Fiona would show rather more spirit than she exhibited in the book and stay away. Members did not think that it was Efe’s involvement in Markie’s death and subsequent suppression of the memory that moulded his character. Rather there was agreement that he had inherited many unpleasant traits from his Grandfather and – to a lesser extent – his own father. With Efe’s abuse of Fiona and his constant unfaithfulness, history was repeating itself.
All were sympathetic to Maud who – as a product of her time and class – was unable to break free from her abusive, tyrannical controlling husband and show more love to her daughter. Again we saw the theme of history repeating itself as in turn Leonora (who like Efe experienced a traumatic event at the age of just 8) was also unable to show love for Rilla – albeit for very different reasons.
Reflecting the fact that Adele Geras is principally a children’s author, members wondered whether this accounted for the fact that some of the characters were a little stereotypical and one dimensional. Some inconsistencies in characterisation were also noted – for instance Douggie was variously painted as a destructive and then an angelic child.
As to the central “twist” to the story, there were some who felt that this was rather too heavily signposted but equally many also guessed incorrectly that the story would travel in a different direction anticipating wrongly the death of Leonora.
In summary most felt it was a good light read, a book which sustained interest throughout. Readers cared about the characters and were thus pleased with a happy ending with pretty much all loose ends tied up – leaving readers only to speculate on whether there was a romance planned for Leonora and Reuben Stronsky and to hope that Fiona would not be prevailed on to give Efe a second chance.
8 members voted and awarded the book 7/10.
September 2012: The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
From Paula in the Colyford group
Abstract, enjoyable, disappointing, challenging, lacking in historical fact and depth of characters, are just some of the words/phrases Colyford used to describe Debra Dean’s first novel.
It was agreed Dean had an interesting idea bringing such diverse topics as Alzheimer’s, the siege of Leningrad and art together, but unlike Deegan’s Daisy it was felt, as a group, she didn’t quite pull it off!
The back cover promised so much, history, art, love and intrigue, however like a much anticipated box of chocolates that has been unwittingly left at nose level to an unattended dog, the promise was unfulfilled!
It was thought the lack of development of the characters, was a key issue in the overall enjoyment of the book. It was difficult to warm to the characters and feel complete sympathy, as descriptions consisted mostly of snippet size and with omissions. This made it difficult to understand some characters and appreciate why they acted as they did. Also it would have been interesting to have known what happened to some of the characters and in particular Marina’s niece and nephew.
One member would have liked to have known what happened to Viktor’s incomplete book, his life’s work. We were left to make our own speculations, one being it was probably consumed, either eaten or used as fuel, which is not such a flippant remark, as at first seems, given the horrors of a starving Leningrad. These horrors, incidentally, could perhaps be seen reflected in some of the paintings Marina had stored to memory, such as the Madonna holding a gaunt Jesus in death; this mirrored Marina’s uncle in his own death lying in the arms of his wife, Nadezhda.
Another aspect of disappointment was the lack of historical facts with an undefined timeline. You could be mistaken in believing Marina’s pregnancy lasted nearly as long as the siege of 900 days; nearer to the gestation period of a baby elephant than a human! History reference books had to be referred to in order to fill in the background of a pivotal point in world history.
The notes at the back of the book revealed Debra Dean didn’t visit Leningrad and the Hermitage Museum until after she wrote the book; it was suggested a visit before hand might have been more beneficial to the flow of the book.
We discussed the omissions above along with the ever changing setting from Leningrad under siege to present day USA, and thought it was perhaps an attempt to reflect the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Even the past was written mostly in the present, perhaps suggesting that the past had became the present once again as Marina’s mind began to lose hold of reality.
This disjointed switching back and forth might reflect this, but for the majority of us it didn’t enhance the book or make it completely accessible and understandable. However perhaps that is the point, that the world of an Alzheimer’s sufferer can only be understood by themselves and only partially by those observing. Debra Dean’s own family experience of the disease in her grandmother, enabled her to have an insight in what she felt Alzheimer’s meant, if not completely to the suffer, at least to those who observed the sufferer.
The memory palace Marina used to recall the missing works of art was an interesting concept. It is based on tested research with many self help publications now available aimed at improving the memory. Dean’s book first published in 2006 would have been released at the time of heightened interest in this memory aid, and perhaps something we should all try especially those amongst us who fear the first signs of Alzheimer’s is already upon them!
Despite the general disappointment in the book, Colyford Book Club did acknowledge the book contained many touching moments. Among them was the giving of a piece of chocolate to the dying woman in the street, the young cadets and captain moved to tears as Marina describes the paintings in the empty frames, the empty frames themselves, left as a symbol of the promise that the art works would one day return to the Hermitage Museum, and Helen’s acute grief for her dying mother.
The title “The Madonnas of Leningrad”, whether referring to the works of art, the brave women who saved them, or possibly both, gave a moving, if somewhat disorderly, testament in a belief that the horrors would eventually end and life would resume as it once did; perhaps also symbolised by the child Marina was carrying.
Overall there were some highlights and well described moments, but as one member put it, echoing the overall sentiment of the group, “Nice idea, but could do an awful lot better!”
Individual members each awarded a mark out of 10 giving an overall average of 5/10.
July 2012: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
From Sue S in the Colyford branch
Having taken five pages of notes, and with the group suggesting that we perhaps produce the longest reports, I joked that I would turn my notes into five salient bullet points; here they are:
~ Or not! It is not possible to condense the emotions and feelings that this book evoked for us into just five bullet points, so our review is again likely to be lengthy!
A very graphic and harrowing read (definitely not holiday material) is how we started our discussion of this book. This is a story about the lives of four people living in India in the 1970s and their struggle with not just living but surviving.
We described it as harrowing, horrifying, absorbing, shocking, incredible, and compelling – the list of adjectives goes on!
To start with we felt unsure where the author and story were going to take us, but as we were compelled to continue reading, it quickly felt that we were going on a journey, albeit a very long one, with the main characters Dina, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck.
Among the questions raised we asked: Could the book be considered to be a political pamphlet? We discussed why Mistry would want to write about the harrowing and dreadful deeds that the government were perpetrating at that time. The Beautification and Family Planning programmes were particularly horrific and Mistry painted them in such graphic and gruesome detail that one could not help but feel the heart-wrenching pain these people were subjected to. But, even more shockingly to us is that these events happened in our recent past, the early 1970s.
Did Mistry want to raise awareness of what happened in this country? He showed that even if you worked incredibly hard you couldn’t leave of the system unless you were corrupt.
Mistry certainly highlighted the extremes in cultural differences between the castes and ultimately comparisons to our own situations and lives were made; we all felt that our minds were opened to the difference in culture. From Dina’s brother trying to find her a husband and him being head of the family once their parents had died. To Ishvar and Narayan’s parents wanting better lives for them by sending them from their village to the town where they could learn a trade and become tailors, rather than struggling to find food in the village and wait for animals to die for them to have work.
The mastery with which Mistry writes evokes memories of smells, noise, crushing trains, the market place, street corner restaurants, beggars, village life, city life, slum dwelling, depravation in those of us who have been fortunate enough to travel to India, and for those of us who haven’t been there produced very real images.
We discussed Maneck’s tragic end; did he feel guilty about surviving, being unable to make choices and what was the relevance of the chess set; was it significant in showing how people move through life; are we all pawns?
Dina eventually letting the tailors use her best teacups in her flat and ultimately feeding Om and Ishvar from her brother’s ‘best’ plates highlighted that she still had some spirit left, despite having to return to her brother’s home and not being able to remain independent.
There were some light-hearted moments in the book; the banter between Maneck and Om, although this relationship did have its ups and downs. Plenty of toilet humour and description of bodily functions and ailments, kept the text diverting and a little amusing if you are not squeamish about these things.
We also touched-on the significance of Dina’s quilt not being finished and that each of the squares of material used had a memory attached to them. We felt that in giving the quilt to Ishvar to use on his ‘trolley’ meant that the friendship would continue, along with their lives and story – wherever that may take them in the future.
Mistry wove minor characters back into the story for example Vasantro Valmik the proof-reader on the train, who we were introduced to at the beginning of the book and then met Dina as a lawyer, and then Maneck again as the proof-reader. Relationships were discovered – Beggarmaster found out that Worm, one of his beggars whom he protected, was his brother, even that relationship ended tragically with Beggarmaster waiting to tell Worm he was his brother and Worm died in a horrendous accident where he was hit by a bus. Beggarmaster was stabbed to death by the Monkey Man and so the sorry tale continued in such a vein until the end of the book.
To conclude we felt that ‘enjoyment’ of the book is not the correct way to describe it. Such dreadful conditions and situations that these people found themselves in provoked emotion in all of us, we were compelled to read it in the hope that there was some light at the end of the tunnel for them; there was not. We were left feeling a little let down by the ending but with an overwhelming sense that the human spirit survives.
However, despite the desperate content we gave it a very high score of 9/10.
From Joy in the Axminster branch
It was roller-coaster of a read; Mistry fills you with hope and expectation only to bring you plummeting back down to the horrors of the reality faced by those living in India during the 70s. I loved the description of it by another club member as “Dickens with poppadums”!
From Penny – in the Somerset group
Our group met yesterday evening to discuss A Fine Balance (only 2 of us had finished it and thought it very good). Took me a long time to read as I could only manage small chunks with it being so harrowing at times!
May 2012: Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
From Sue S. in the Colyford group
Everyone felt that it was centred on a serious topic (racism / segregation) but felt that in parts the issues were skimmed over without giving the required depth and attention to the subject matter.
We all felt that the book was insightful, particularly as it presented the racism issue from the opposite view point and allowed everyone to consider the impacts of this from a new perspective.
Although the plot centred on a doomed love story, it was felt that this was a good method of illustrating many of the issues faced. The alternating chapters between the main characters was also an interesting approach, and although the start was slow, the alternate viewpoints kept the story progressing at a good pace.
The language used and the relatively simple sentence structure made it obvious that the book was aimed at the teen market.
We all felt a rapport with the male character Callum and as the underdog would have wished for an ending to the story which would have allowed for the character to be developed further in subsequent books. Sephy on the other hand comes across as spoilt.
The initial scene setting – many felt that it was set in a futuristic time/ place, was very thought provoking once the reader realised that the story was about racism. Some also felt annoyed with the many ‘play on words’ used by the author e.g. Crossmas but following discussion felt that the author had used this to highlight that the Crosses had ‘hijacked’ everything ‘good’ and it gave pause for thought as to whether this was still reflected in attitudes today.
We all agreed that this was a typical example of the genre of books aimed at teenagers today where authors tackle quite serious subject matter, in this case racism. Another example mentioned was Phillip Pullman (religion).
We also discussed whether the response to the book would vary depending upon where the reader lived and how often on a day to day basis issues of racism were encountered?
Overall, it was a fairly quick read but many felt that there was insufficient depth to the characters and only a limited description of the places so it was difficult to become absorbed in the story.
Voting varied between everyone as it was dependent upon whether individuals graded the book on the subject matter which scored highly or the language and depth of the writing. Scores ranged from 9 down to 4 with the average being 6.6.
From Sue in the Sidmouth group
We had our meeting this week in Sidmouth and the unanimous verdict was a big X!
Most people valiantly ploughed through the whole book but I gave up about half way. We all thought the characters were not likable and very aggressive to each other. A bit like the characters in East Enders (not that any of us watch that of course!!).
I found it very stereotypical and predictable. When ‘Christmas’ became ‘Crossmas’ I lost the will to carry on.
Apparently the ending was unbelievable and very grim. I read for enjoyment & relaxation; this was too depressing and not educational or informative.
Apparently it’s better if you are a teenager but as I am well past that it rated 0/10.
March 2012: Open ‘by’ Andre Agassi (but really by J.R. Moehringer)
From Huw in the Sidmouth group
As for Open, I’m afraid this was the first book in our reading group that I’ve given up on, so far… A bit odd, I know, considering I slogged through the 750+ pages of This Thing of Darkness and Margaret Atwood’s ponderous tome. But I didn’t find Open convincing, or enjoyable, at all, or the 75-odd pages I managed to read. I thought I liked Andre Agassi; he always looked like he was a happy bunny on court. But the more I read, the less I liked him, and didn’t believe he could have gone through all his glittering career hating the game, not to mention hating his dad so bitterly. Maybe that was true, but to me he just seemed like yet another egotistical spoilt brat, without much of the charm and modesty he seems to have in public. Maybe this other side was dramatised to make a more revealing read, but it didn’t do it for me.
From Jane in the Axminster group
Overall I enjoyed this book despite its obvious faults. If you are going to get a book ghost written, and there will be a vast number of ghost writers up to the task, why not pick someone who could do a really good job? The tennis games were interminable, the repetition of emotions overdone and thus dramatically reducing their impact, the use of the Homeric “in media res” for the opening was not in this instance well done and didn’t bring the book emotionally full circle. But most importantly the ghostwriter didn’t capture Andre Agassi’s charisma and that was a shame. We all remember what a charmer he was on the court, don’t we? Unbelievably this essential piece of his character was obliterated in the book. There were one or two wonderfully comic parts involving the toupee and the episode in “Friends” with the hand licking and more of these human moments would have lifted the book considerably. The revelation of a difficult childhood and over bearing father was interesting but, again, I believe the reader would have been more sympathetic to Andre Agassi if we were simply shown what happened and not told how awful it was. The discovery of the emotions for ourselves is much more effective than being told what we ought to feel. However, I found myself completely forgiving Andre Agassi for the” look at me I’ve suffered so much” message and “I’m so magnanimous” message because I decided that wasn’t him saying it but how the ghostwriter portrayed him. For me, the drive of the story was not at all the tennis and the grueling hours of training but his courtship and winning of Steffi. Stripping off his shirt to impress her was embarrassingly human! I was glad when he finally managed to hook up with her as that offered him at last some real happiness and some inner peace. It’s good to know that fame and money doesn’t buy you happiness but that love does!
From Tammy in the Colyford group
We had fairly mixed opinions on this book, with some interesting scores ranging from 0 -9 which I will come to later! On the whole the group seemed pleasantly surprised that the book seemed fairly ‘easy reading’ at least compared with some of the other books we have read. The opening was quite strong, with Andre waking up after sleeping on the floor. None of us knew he had the injuries and spinal problems that he did, which unfolded and were described in more detail later in the book. From Moira’s point of view she felt that ‘Open’ was: “Just another of “my horrible childhood” /self help genre – many of us could write a book, play and film on this theme – we just choose not to and get on with our lives.”
Andre seemed unashamed of his ‘brat years’, though his loss of hair seemed to affect him greatly, and we joked about his having to wear a hairpiece, but felt that it is quite difficult for a young man or anyone to lose one’s hair at such a young age.
It was agreed that there was more than enough ‘whingeing’ going on in the book! If he HATED the game as much as he said he did, then why did he continue to play? We felt he had an obsessive character, but whether this was nature or nurture we don’t know. Certainly his father kept telling him to ‘hit the ball harder’ and ‘hit the ball harder’ and ‘hit the ball harder’ when he was a child that he could probably think of nothing else! He was forced to repeat these returns, from his father’s unique specially made and adapted ball machine.
We came back to this obsessive nature on a few occasions with thoughts ranging from, Andre had a compulsive addiction to the game (OCD), he was driven to prove to himself and his father that he could, perhaps that he was from an immigrant family who often work extra hard to be recognised. It was as if he could think of nothing else to do with his life. Even later on when he was not performing well, he dropped down to the bottom, only to force himself back up to the top.
We felt that he did not particularly like himself and that he needed the support of his entourage to boost his self esteem, Wendy, his brother, his friend Perry, his different trainers, Gil, his racket stringer and first Brooke, then Steffi to constantly tell him how good he was. We found the way he started his relationship with Brooke ‘a bit odd’; why would you fax a person you didn’t know just because someone suggested it would be a good idea? We thought it amusing that he had always fixated on Steffi, and that even when he was with Brooke, there was a picture of Steffi on the fridge!
His father was the drive to Andre’s success, pushing him, wanting him to be number 1. He had already tried hard with his other children to be World champions in Tennis, but they had not reached the target, so Andre was his last hope.
Most of us felt that the matches in the book were described in too much detail, which became rather monotonous and several of us skim read them. We felt that Andre’s opinion of himself and the way he looked at the world changed after he met Mandela. He was contemptuous of Chang with his religious belief that God was on his side. He was ultimately driven to the end, even when his father told him ‘enough now’ and to stop, Andre could not.
A little was mentioned about the Academy Andre set up . We agreed that this was one good thing that Andre did to support the poorer community and give inspiration to many youngsters, and wondered whether he was still funding it.
As for the score well I am going to say 7.
From Jackie in the Sidmouth group
We talked about the book for about an hour – it really did inspire a discussion about how much you should push your children!! The majority of people very much enjoyed the book, found it to be a quick read and were glad it had been suggested.
From Liz in the Exmouth/Budleigh Salterton group
Our group enjoyed reading about Andre Agassi but felt that the book didn’t read very well as appeared to have been written not by him personally but by some-one else. We weren’t sure if we were getting the real him.
From Deborah in Honiton/Ottery St Mary group
… interesting as the book had been ghost written; we compiled a table of the books so far:
No 1 Silas Marner – a favourite with us all
No 2 This Thing of Darkness
No 3 Open
No 4 Blind Assassin – so difficult to read.
January 2012: Silas Marner by George Elliot
From Jane in the Axminster group
I enjoyed this book despite the fact it was almost too neat and the ending was too perfect to be believable. I loved the witticism in the writing and, after the last two books, was relieved to have a short read and what was essentially an uplifting and positive tale. The book was not though inspiring of intense discussion or debate within our book club meeting as it had few controversial elements.
From Vicky in the Sidmouth group
We all enjoyed the book and found it a good book to read for the Christmas holidays. We felt that it had rather a fairy tale ending.
September 2011: This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson
The voyages of the Beagle, its Captain, Robert Fitzroy, and Darwin. Epic!!!
From Penny in the Somerset group
I enjoyed the book and found the descriptions of storm tossed seas and how the sailors coped with being at sea for months on end pretty gripping. Interesting to read about Darwin’s rise to fame, all helped along the way by the crew on the Beagle. Rather poignant that Captain Fitzroy never had the recognition he deserved for his weather forecasting work until after he died.
From Sarah in the Honiton/Ottery St Mary group
My thoughts on This Thing of Darkness: Despite its length, its somewhat unappealing title, this book has been a most enjoyable read and I am very glad to have been introduced to it. There are all kinds of levels of interest – the characters big and small, the geography, the sea voyages, the social history to name a few. Would highly recommend it!
From Liz in the Exmouth Budleigh Salterton group
‘This Thing of Darkness’ was on the whole enjoyed by the Exmouth/Budleigh group. More of a fictionalized biography than a novel, I think we were all very interested in the subject matter and found it gripping. Personally I really enjoy books like this as its a great way of learning history.
We felt the author had done his research very well and really brought events to life, some parts you felt like you were really there. Descriptions of ‘poor London’ were good. A very readable book if you were interested in the subject matter.
Some felt that the characters could have been explored in more depth to explore the reasons for their actions. I didn’t feel this was a weakness, I think it was clear why they acted how they did as they were products of their time class and background. Fitzroy clearly came out as the hero, Darwin as something of a racist! Mental health issues would not have been discussed and explored in those days and Fitzroy with his stiff upper lip would just have got on with things although succumbed in the end.
We discussed the book for about an hour which is pretty good going and I am so glad I read it as it’s given me so much interest and understanding of Darwin and Fitzroy.
So, not a great ‘novel’ but a great ‘book’.
From Huw in the Sidmouth group
This Thing of Darkness was an enthralling tale showing the rise of Darwin from feckless youth to established figurehead, dramatically juxtaposed with the fate of the unsung hero Fitzroy, whose star plummets from youthful glory to equally spectacular tragedy. I also loved the scenes in South America. As a frequent visitor myself, I thought Thompson exactly conjured up the adventurous wilds of the continent’s farthest corners.