“Good read”, “Interesting”, “Not well written”, “Entertaining”, “Having to force oneself to read it”, “Easy read, “Enjoyable”, “Undemanding”, “Dreary”, “Disjointed”, “ Thought provoking” … and that was just ONE of the books read by the Book Club in 2013!
December 2013: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
From the Colyford Group
This was a book that prompted a wide range of initial reactions amongst members. On the positive side some related feeling genuinely gutted at the powerfully matter of fact and casual depiction of the repeated loss of life in the slums & the awful plight of the slum dwellers. In contrast to this, one member admitted to resorting to putting off even going to bed at night at the very thought of having to pick up the book again!
It also prompted a very wide ranging & animated discussion which quite unusually caused a number of those whose initial responses to the book had been negative to consider giving it another try. On a lighter note we were also reminded of the pitfalls of using vernacular English expressions when speaking with Indian call centres – Peanuts anyone?
Most were agreed that the picture painted of the desperate squalor and hopelessness of life as a member of the underclass in the Mumbai slum was vivid. However many members commented that they struggled to empathise with or feel passion for the characters. We saw their pain but did not share it. Many compared this book unfavourably with “A Fine Balance” which had a similar setting but was much more successful in generating real warmth for the characters. A couple of scenes were singled out as illustrating really concisely the desperate situation – the chaos of the Courtroom where the Judge’s pronouncements could not be heard by the defendant such were the deafening sounds from the streets outside. In a similar vein there was real understated tragedy in the description of the hotel flowerbed which recovered so quickly from being a murder scene. The death of another slum dweller quickly erased from view.
Many of those whose initial reaction to the book was negative had been unaware until reaching the Author’s epilogue that the book was not a work of fiction – less of a novel and more a social commentary. In contrast, those who approached it in the knowledge that it was based on the author’s real life experience of meeting those who lived in Annawadi felt positively about the fact that the author chose a narrative format rather than the series of journalistic interviews and observations they had expected.
Despite the mixed reactions to reading the book, most were agreed that there were some valid and timely points raised. Much as India may wish to be thought of as a land of opportunity – whether for Western Corporates looking for profit, for Tourists seeking culture or for the local educated classes with enhanced employment opportunities – real problems remain. This is a country with huge issues with poverty & corruption. The book relates with terrible irony how on the one hand the slumdwellers are denied rights & opportunities by the corruption rife in society yet at the same time observes that becoming corrupt & thereby gaining power has been identified as one of the only viable routes out of poverty. The disparity between the life in the slums and the opulence of neighbouring hotels & airports is striking – 21st Century facilities on the doorstep of the almost inhuman setting of Annawadi in which even very modest ambitions seem doomed to fail such are the challenges to simply survive. Yet there are some touching descriptions of friendships & respect – even as they are accused falsely of her murder a family look after the victim’s children & then, at great personal expense, perform the rituals to prepare her body for burial.
There was consensus that the book was a valuable reminder heightening our sensitivity to this issue which – as presented here – seems to be on the agenda of the Indian Government as something to be merely airbrushed out rather than actually addressed.
We voted & awarded the book 6.5 out of 10.
September 2013: Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley
From the Honiton Group
We thought it was somewhat disturbing. We appreciate that child abuse happens in real life, but would rather not had this subject matter to read! Some finished it in the hope of some ‘justice’ being done in the end, but some couldn’t bring themselves to finish it because of the content. Was the author writing from any kind experience or something she witnessed, and if so, was writing the book part of her recovery? If the aim of the author was to shock then it worked and we all agreed it has put us off reading anything by that author in the future.
Most of us gave it 0/10 but one of the group said 4/10 purely for the discussion it brought about between us.
From the Colyford Group
If the definition of a good choice of a book for a book club is one that provokes or divides opinion then Amity and Sorrow fulfilled that criteria. There was a division of opinion but one with an interesting twist. The initial response to the book was negative. Most agreed that it was an easy book to read and not challenging in that way. Criticism was then addressed at the lack of appeal of the characters and why did they have silly names! Further criticism was addressed at the lack of development and understanding of the story. The psychology which made the characters did not come through and there was an innate sense of hopelessness.
Discussion turned right round when several members put a completely opposite view and one had even read it in one day. The common denominator shared by those who liked Amity and Sorrow was having read a good book about American cults unfortunately nobody could remember the title or author of that book!
There were enough positive feelings about the book to provoke debate on the role of certain characters:
~ What happened to Hope? She sounded interesting.
~ Was there only two boys in the group who had reached puberty and what happened to them?
~ What happened to Dust and why did he help Sorrow to go back?
~ What was the point of the girls being strapped together?
~ The hopelessness of Sorrow and her fate.
~ The old man seemed an interesting character and it would have been interesting if his role had developed.
~ Would it have made a difference if one had read The Grapes of Wrath and whether it was intended as a modern version or supplement to that classic?
It is not difficult to come to some conclusion that perhaps this book lacked the depth to make the characters more real or to draw the reader into the story without some understanding of cult life. We like to use our imagination but the author needs to create the right stimulus.
Voting provided an average score of 5.16666.
July 2013: The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory
From Jane in the Axminster Group
Oh Phillippa! How hath the mighty fallen!
This book was a very far cry from the fascination, drama and intrigue of the Other Boleyn Girl. It was poorly constructed with much repetition and several “info dumps”. Philippa Gregory is a very capable author and this was well below the standard of her other books I had read. It smacked of a rush job thrown together with little thought. What a shame!
From the Colyford Group
Words and thoughts to describe the novel from individuals….
“Good read”, “Interesting”, “Not well written”, “Entertaining”, “Having to force oneself to read it”, “Easy read, “Enjoyable”, “Undemanding”, “Dreary”, “Not ‘storyfied’ enough for me”, “Disjointed”, “ Thought provoking” , “good insight into the dynastic shenanigans that went on!”
A diverse response from Colyford Book Club that fuelled a good discussion about Philippa Gregory’s historical novel set in the 15th century.
Overall the majority agreed it was an easy read, and once readers could identify the numerous Edwards, Georges and Richards, no mean feat in itself, the book tended to work for them. On the whole, though, it was thought of as a rather sanitized and not a truly reflective portrayal of what life was really like in medieval England, especially for the people of the lower classes who were hardly touched upon unless they were lying dead or dying on a battle field!
The easy read was partly achieved by using contemporary spoken language. This however made the book remote from the era it was set in for some members, making the book feel less historical and more of a lighter airport departure lounge read. A few “ye”s, “olde”s and “thous” might have done the trick.
However it was thought the historical facts and dates were largely correct which pleased those in the group who like to feel they have not only been entertained, but have learnt something along the way, albeit for as long as their grey cells can retain facts these days!
Our group historian Helen who knows Shute Barton well, enjoyed the link Shute has with the Woodville family and found it thought provoking from an historical point of view, however Helen and others had issues with the chocolate box characters that didn’t quite ring true. Gregory has obviously had to use her own interpretation and ideas, in the absence of original source material available from the time on what was actually said by key figures who lived through historical events, in order to create a story to engage her audience.
Many were surprised at the amount of intrigue, swapping allegiance and general all round plotting that seemed to go on. Women overall seemed to have a tough time, though there were one or two battleaxes who seemed to hold their own, at least for most of the book. On the whole women were controlled and used for bartering; pawns of possession by their men folk. However they were largely not supportive amongst themselves, with mothers at odds with daughters and sisters against sisters.
It seemed to us a fearful society not knowing who was going to turn from being your friend one minute to your enemy the next. Many of them must have been suffering from what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder and would most likely be regularly reclining on a counselor’s couch if it was set in modern times!
A similar behaviour could be found in the more contemporary setting of Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”. A keen survival instinct spurred people to act against one another in order to maintain or gain a better position in the rankings of their society, though in Mistry’s book blood relatives largely stuck together.
It was noted Gregory’s first books were better by those in the group who had read them. Perhaps pressure to meet publisher’s deadlines, and mini TV serializations knocking at the door, played a part in churning out the later books that appear a little the same. Incidentally the current showing of the White Queen was thought to have a sanitized feel about it similar to the book; not quite ringing true with the era it is set in, by those who had watched it.
The witchcraft aspect was interesting, real or imagined, many people obviously believed in these practices at the time, but perhaps this theme, running through the book, gave the whole story a slightly more than was necessary supernatural feel at the cost of historical facts; certainly there’s enough material for Hollywood moguls to make a fantasy horror film version.
Finally there were lots of interesting references to etiquette and household practices reflecting the era such as preparing the bed chamber, feasting, altering of acquired clothes (usually this followed ousting the previous owner first). It was also fascinating to learn about the practice of sanctuary and the lying in post natal period, and I think everyone would agree that giving birth on a ship on a stormy English Channel crossing today would be bad enough, let alone during the 15th century with not a chance of an epidural!
The group ended with giving individual votes out of 10 that averaged out as 6.5 from the twelve members who were present, and one who voted by proxy.
April 2013: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
From Lorette in the Axminster Group
I found it a non starter, boring in fact I thought it would take us into the ‘time’ be part of a young couples excitement/fear of what lay ahead…..I got fed up waiting.
From Deborah in the Honiton/Ottery St Mary Group
Found this a difficult book as some of the language was not impressive.
However towards the end of the story had the characters taken a courageous step and not backed out how different the outcome might have been, particularly as neither of them went on the form a lasting relationship. Perhaps the message was to not set too high expectations at the start of a relationship?
From Sue in the Colyford Group
A short quick read is how we began our discussion of this book, the story of two newlyweds Edward & Florence and their fears & anxieties of the wedding night to come.
Given the subject, everyone agreed that the story was very sensitively written using excellent prose and language that reflected the time that the book was set, the early 1960’s.
Some of us felt that it was a little slow moving but it was generally agreed that this was probably intentional in order to build up the tension between the two protagonists as their wedding evening progressed towards the inevitable.
There are a few loose ends, for instance, was Florence so naive even fearful because of some trauma earlier in her life? Many of us were expecting an admission or for there to have been an event that might have triggered her fear. In the end we are left to assume that her rather distant and uncommunicative relationship with her parents, particularly her mother was to blame.
We all felt that Edward was influenced by the very sad home life he had as a child with his mother and father. The predicament that his father and the family had to endure, most likely because his father was too proud to ask for help only seems the have added to Edwards inability to express his own feelings.
Many agreed that it was a very painful story and it demonstrated how easily a relationship can go awry. It was obvious that both characters loved each other deeply but their inability to communicate their anxieties to each other led to the disastrous outcome.
Perhaps this is a reflection of life in the pre libertarian 1960’s and both characters are influenced by the generation that came before them?
In summary, given the subject matter, Fifty Shades of Chesil Beach it wasn’t (although it was commented that if she had been tied up at least she wouldn’t have been able to run away!) but it received a very creditable score of 7 out of 10 (lowest score being 5, highest 8)
March 2013: Capital by John Lanchester
From Cat in the Colyford Group
The story line: Started well with a good description of the history of Pepys Road, its past residents and how that had all changed to be the Pepys Road of today with just one original resident Petunia Howe. Most of the houses had been updated or were in the process of being renovated to produce large, very expensive properties, much sought after by wealthy city people.
Characters: Most of us felt that the character descriptions were good. Many of the characters seemed unhappy with their ‘lot’ in life and were hoping for something better to happen to them. The residents in Pepys Road were very different from each other and didn’t seem to know or interact with each other despite living on the same street! The exception to this was the Polish builder who had done or was currently doing work on some of the properties. He and Matya got on well and were thought a good couple. Petunia Howe, who had lived on Pepys Road for fifty years, was well thought of by our group. Arabella was disliked by everyone – a selfish person who couldn’t even look after her own two children without the help of two nannies! Most of us warmed to all of the family members running the corner shop. They were quite amusing. Roger having to look after his own children over Christmas was hilarious and probably one of the most memorable chapters in the book!!!
Short chapters: As a group we were divided about whether or not the short chapters were a good thing in this book. Yes, they made the book easy to get into and to read but at the same time there wasn’t enough information in any chapter to really find out what was happening in any great detail. One short chapter usually jumped to another of a totally unrelated incident or resident in Pepys Road, making it difficult to really bond with the characters and their situations.
Overall the feeling was that this book started well, even with some mystery and intrigue, but that it soon fizzled out and went on for just too long for what happened in the end – not a lot! There was no mystery to the story or big life changing event for the residents of Pepys Road, like the beginning of the book had suggested there might be. A lot of pages (575!) for not much of a story.
The average score given to Capital by the Colyford group was 6. Some scored it as low as 4, the highest being an 8.
February 2013: The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
From Jonnie in the Exeter Group
We had a lively discussion regarding Allan Karlsson’s romp through rural Sweden and through life. The book was uniformly enjoyed by all. I think the quirky nature of the character appealed to us and his wonderful care-free attitude to life. We enjoyed his knack of meeting iconic political figures & his inadvertent influence on world politics, a slight against the world we live in.
From Helen in the Colyford Group
This book really divided the Group. Reactions varying from “possibly the worst book I have ever read” to quiet chuckles about the elephants movements and seating opportunities.
The negative criticisms were easier to note. Though the book was described as dull and shallow, the most objective criticism were that the characters were not easy to identify with or care about and therefore what was the point of the story. The fact there were few female characters in the book had little to do with this criticism!
Reading an article about the Author – Jonas Jonasson perhaps provided an insight into the book. His claims that the book was 47 years in its planning though he is only 51 did surprise us all! Jonas also identified with the main character Allan Karlsson whom he described as his alter-ego. He like Jonas as a young man took life as it came and did not apparently worry about anything. Maybe that is the level at which the book should be read – not trying to identify with the characters or trying to read too much into it and just enjoyed as “a hopeful satire of the shortcomings of mankind” – again the authors words. At least one of our members thought they may reread the book from a different perspective.
Another other aspect of the book that provoked discussion was whether the story would have been more readable as a straightforward narrative without the toing and froing between the present day and Allan’s life history. There was also a feeling that the book was too long especially when bogged down in Russian history around Vladivostok. We did not extend the discussion on the correctness of the historical information but did note the omission of Hitler and the Holocaust and did smile at the unlikely end that Stalin experienced after telling everyone not to disturb him.
Overall we were pleased that there was a happy ending and thought it would make an enjoyable film though it might not be like Mr Gum – the stories by Andy Stanton which one of our members was reminded of.
The voting for this book demonstrated our conflicting views with votes varying from 2 to 8 out of 10. The end result was 6
From Jane in the Axminster Group
This book was a slow start for me but gradually won appeal. I was irritated initially by the continual humour and I could imagine the author patting himself on the back and rewarding himself with another cup of coffee, or possibly glass of vodka, every second paragraph when he thought himself particularly clever. All of these continual jokes struck me as simply silly. However as the book progressed and indeed the number of jokes lessened a little I was quietly pleased by the whole journey through life. Here was a man leading life to his own agenda, able to because of his lack of responsibilities. I did however feel that like the Forrest Gump story – life is like a box of chocolates – the going back and forth between present and past worked well as this gave an understanding of why on earth he behaved as bizarrely and recklessly as he did aged 100. The book would have been ‘thin’ without this double story line as a large pat of the book is about how the past shapes future decisions. As the story progressed and we saw the highly politically driven slaughter of the twentieth century being influenced by the apolitical accidents of a single vodka-seeking eccentric, I realized that the author was making a point; that all the self-serving designs of mankind were no more effective than the actions of a whimsical undirected wanderer and that life was for living and not for taking so seriously. But the highlight for me was when the opening of the book was repeated at the end I thought, well, of course, he climbed out of the window because by then we had got to know the Old Man well enough to be certain that was what he would have to do! There was a sense of satisfaction in the character development at that point that was quite surprising considering the style of the novel. Here was a man, not just in charge of his own destiny but, indeed, who had a vast impact on the destiny of all of those in the twentieth century simply because he wasn’t prepared to do what was expected of him but chose his own path, strangely successful yet highly destructive at the same time. Life is like a box of chocolates – but you spit out all the ones you don’t like and grab all the best ones for yourself!
From Angela in the Sidmouth Group
It was a book we weren’t really enthusiastic about. We appreciated it wasn’t meant to be a realistic account of a man’s life and present adventures but the humourous style was only bearable up to a point. It did go on a bit and feel as if the author just wanted to cram his hero anyhow into yet another episode of twentieth century history. We agreed it was the literary equivalent of those TV comedians who humorously (?) superimpose pictures of themselves on to photos of eg the queen meeting Bill Clinton or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon – to make it look as if they were there too. Sort of Forrest Gumpish.
We discussed whether part of its success was due to its intriguing – and lengthy – title. Also, does it profit from the current popularity of other Swedish books/TV? We wondered whether the process of translation removed any linguistic subtleties as it was not a style which appealed to us. Too much “that happened, then that happened”. Also, not everyone liked the main character, Allan. The author may have intended Allan’s amoral attitude to be some thought-provoking comment on the way the world works – but we didn’t get it. He was “silly” and “annoying” and, in any case, unlikely to have been able to climb out of a window in the first place!