These are the books we read in 2016 – if anybody has any more reviews, please do send them in.
November 2016: Sweet Caress by William Boyd
William Boyd has done it again. He’s made everyone rush to check whether his character – Amory Clay – is a real historical figure or not. She’s not. But don’t let that put you off for a minute. Amory Clay is a courageous, female, twentieth century photographer. And the fact she is such a convincing creation is due to Boyd’s unerring talent as a storyteller. This a captivating read. One that stretches from Berlin strip clubs of the 1920s to the Vietnam War. And one, we would argue, not to miss. “A paean to a complicated life shaped by curveballs, it’s rich in psychological depth, zingy characters and period detail.” – The Mail on Sunday.
If anybody has any reviews for this book, please send them in.
September 2016: Pot Luck by Nick Fisher
Nick Fisher is a BAFTA award winning screen writer who normally writes for things like Holby City, Casualty and Hustle for the BBC. This book, chosen by Somerset group, is his first novel. Apparently it ought to come with a warning of “strong language” but it is appropriate to the characters who are commercial crab fishermen.
He also wrote The River Cottage Fish Book and is a local author. As such, he has offered to do a reading/Q&A session for the Book Club as a whole. If you would be interested in meeting Nick, please email Jane Welch with ideas of when (probably late September?) and where we might be able to arrange this.
If anybody has any reviews for this book, please send them in.
July 2016: Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
‘This is a deftly organised, impeccably paced psychological suspense thriller that nods to Daphne du Maurier and, like all Heaberlin’s fiction, boasts purr-inducing prose’ Sunday Times, Culture Magazine.
From the Honiton Group
We found the book a real page turner. It was easy to identify with Tessa and her story. Her story was believable and typical of someone following her tragic experience. Although it was not so believable that she hadn’t investigated the possibility of her killer being out there due to the black eyed Susans appearing throughout her life. We found that we couldn’t work out who the killer was, thinking it was the father of Lydia until the reveal.
We hope that further books by the author are as engaging as this one
From the Colyford Group – Thursday
Opinion was most definitely divided on whether we enjoyed reading “Pot Luck”. Certainly it prompted a very long and enjoyable discussion.
We awarded a score of 6/10 on average but the individual marks given ranged from 3 – 9 reflecting the true “marmite” nature of the book.
There were a number of points on which we were all agreed. Firstly that as predominantly middle class women of a certain age we were probably not its target market and also that the tough and challenging world in which it was set was not one we inhabited or would care to inhabit.
Many found the language quite shocking and, certainly initially, off-putting. Whilst we were prepared to accept that the dialogue may have needed to be so “colourful” in order to reflect reality, we were less prepared to accept quite so much swearing in the descriptive passages.
Almost without exception we found that the male characters were hopeless incompetents to the extent of being virtual caricatures – the preening policeman, the Sandbanks bankrupt “Sugar-Daddy” and the catalyst for the whole sorry tale – the boy who refused to grow up. We felt most sympathy for Adrian who had tried to rise above his lot and put his life on an even keel with his wife and family only to be ultimately engulfed by the hopelessness of his situation and dragged down, quite literally, into the abyss.
We wondered whether the author’s first-hand knowledge of the fishermen of the area meant that he was aware that this sort of thing actually went on or whether it was more the case that the life was so tough that these were things of which they would be capable. We applauded the fact that the 2 strongest characters in the book were both women – Adrian’s wife, Helen and Detective Chin. They were the only two who seemed able to embark on a course of action and actually see it through. The insights into Helen’s early life were interesting although even the harsh depiction of aspects of her childhood didn’t quite prepare any of us for the macabre course of action she was ultimately to take for the sake of her family.
Although the book was undeniably gruesome in parts we did enjoy some of the lighter, comedic moments – such as the hapless adventure into “big-time” drug dealing and the throwaway line about there being no gays in Weymouth because they were all living in Poole. Based on some very limited experiences this latter observation did reflect a reality we, at least in part, appreciated. This juxtaposition of humour and bleak tragedy made us wonder about the genre of the book. What was it? Did it have one? If not, did it matter at all? Whatever the genre or lack thereof we did agree that, if it was fair to generalise, it really wasn’t a “girl’s book” and many felt far more likely to recommend it to husbands & sons than to girlfriends or daughters.
Some felt that the sections of the book on the practicalities, techniques and history of crab fishing were too detailed. Others really enjoyed the insights these parts offered and via which we learned much that we had not known before such as the awful job of baiting the pots and the changing construction of the pots themselves. We felt that the book spiralled towards its conclusion incredibly rapidly – almost as if the writer had tired of the story. Perhaps though this was simply a reflection of
the chaotic lives of the characters set on self-destruct and accelerating out of control. The actual ending of the book caught many of us by surprise although there were some who felt that it was clear that there was something dramatic imminent. We all liked the reference at this point back to the broken life jacket which ensured that this final scheme didn’t go to plan but was – like so much before – foiled by the chaos and poverty of circumstance.
In summary it was a book we all wanted to like because of the local aspect to it but which ultimately many of us didn’t enjoy because of its grittiness, the prevailing sense of hopelessness and its setting in a world to which we found it hard to relate. It certainly raised lots of questions which we couldn’t answer – how realistic was the depiction of the society in which it was set? Would we feel comfortable reading it in public given the colourful language? Was it written with a screenplay in mind? If yes, who would take the key roles? Finally, we wondered, whatever happened to the cat’s head?
From the Colyford Tuesday Group
The reviews were mixed and have been amalgamated from 7 members so not quite representative. The average score was 6/10.
Some were disappointed as the book was accompanied by quite a lot of hype and the unnecessary haste with which all the issues were resolved within the last two chapters. Others were gripped by the very strong female characters and true to life plot essentially based on how the US police deal with cases of missing persons.
Our discussion centred on the following topics:
The novel was carefully crafted using the alternating dialogue of Tessie, undergoing examination by a psychiatrist after her ordeal at the age of 16, and present day Tessa (34) to explore big issues about the death penalty and forensics or lack of them at that time. There is a good deal of usefully explained science behind the identification of bodies by their regional origins that I found utterly compelling.
The chapters were short and concise but most left more unanswered questions than provided answers. The suspense was palpable until the very end, and the twist that explained Lydia’s absence seemed almost far-fetched. Why did Tessa not just Google Lydia who had seemingly disappeared without trace? Why bring Lydia’s daughter into it? It was also not entirely convincing that Tessa (as witness) could, a) form a relationship with the defence lawyer and also, b) have access to Terrel, the suspect on death row.
The writing was chillingly descriptive of a child left for dead amongst corpses and atmospheric of urban Texas. There was some interesting stuff about parenting, psychology and the institutional abuse of both victims and the accused within the legal process.
It transpires that the strands of the plot that remained unresolved or were crucial were the result of last minute changes by Julia Heaberlin Black Eyed Susans (the third of her 3 thrillers). She had already written ‘Playing Dead’ and since ‘Lie Still’ to considerable acclaim.
This is a clever novel which may have been based on the spate of children snatched or abducted, using topical issues including post-traumatic stress syndrome and geochemistry which ultimately buys the ‘killer’ his freedom. The link to Edgar Allen Poe is a useful insight into of the author’s shared interest in mystery and the macabre.
Our affection for the flowers has been sadly tainted by reading this book.
From the Axminster Group
This was an interesting read, one of those books which you want to keep reading, to find out “whodunnit”! It was well written, alternating between the younger victim in the story and the current day (about 16 years on from memory, though I did read this a while ago). There were a few red herrings thrown in, the real perpetrator was a bit of an anti-climax, in that I felt the character had not really been fully developed enough to give any real clues to the reader- there had been an obscure reference to a troubled childhood, but little else to go on to pinpoint him as the monster. I was also a little confused about who was behind the planting of the black eyed Susans – maybe I need to read it again!
From the Colyford Group
Blacked-eyed Susans was, for me, perhaps most notable for its strong, likable female characters; the males being left rather sketchy and contingent. To be evenhanded, I will categorize this as a flaw. The writing was descriptive and atmospheric of modern-day, urban Texas. There was some interesting stuff about parenting, forensics, psychology and the institutional abuse of both victims and accused within the legal process. The plot was for the most part tightly woven, suspenseful and picked up pace, but a number of strands that were ultimately crucial felt slipshod, like they had been retrospectively and halfheartedly tacked on: I imagine as a result of plot changes brought on by authorial-debut-editor-induced anxiety and self-doubt. It was quick, easy and readable and overall worthwhile.
From the Exmouth Group
We found the book quite compelling. The short chapters made it very easy to pick up and put down.
We really liked the mother daughter relationship, it was very warm and very real.
There were mixed feelings about the lawyer. Some of us didn’t work it out straight away because of the writer keeping his role quite subtle.
The protagonist didn’t seem very committed to proving Terrell not guilty, and we assumed that was because of the complex relationships.
She had a very odd relationship with the psychiatrist, and with Lydia.
We questioned why it was called Black Eyed Susans. We discussed a number of possible explanations for this. It all seemed very sinister, but there were flaws in the narrative because of the enigma. There were a number of occasions where she referred to her own mental health, and that made us question whether to trust her voice. This tied in with the theme of her withholding information. We felt that we were double guessing her all the time.
The ending felt like a bit of a let down. There was a suitable amount of unanswered questions, but it still felt like a bit of a lazy ending.
From the Exeter Book Group
Billed as Thriller of the Year I was somewhat excited to dip my literary toe into this book with it’s beautiful cover of a red-headed beauty draped in yellow flowers. It is written with two themes, one of traumatised Tessie in therapy following an abduction and near-death experience and one of present day angst-ridden Tess coming to terms with her past.
The trigger for Tess’s current exploration of past events seems to be the pending execution of the convicted perpetrator. The narration of the two themes gradually reveals the events of the past and the innocence of the condemned man. The speculation of this miscarriage of justice was questioned several days after the trial by Tessie/Tess herself when flowers were planted in her garden which led some book-clubbers to ponder why she left it so long to reveal her doubts!
Personally I found Julia Heaberlin’s style of writing rather irritating with the preponderance of brand names scattered throughout the book. Unfortunately this mirrored my irritation of Tess which was not shared by all the group. However some of the characters were well portrayed for example Tess’s daughter Charlie with her chaotic worry-free teenage lifestyle and the alpha male ex-partner soldier.
As a crime novel we felt it lacked some credibility. The abduction seemed somewhat opportunistic, the role of her friend Lydia rather far-fetched and the ending somewhat flat.
June 2016: The Night Manager by John Le Carré
Jonathan Pine is ready to stand up and be counted in the fight against this ultimate heart of darkness. His mission takes him from the cliffs of west Cornwall, via northern Quebec and the Caribbean, to the jungles of post-Noriega Panama. His quarry is the worst man in the world.
From the Honiton Group
None of the group had read a Le Carré book before. After reading this book we felt that we’d like to try another book from him. Although we were quite aware that it would possibly be another weighty and befuddling read.
We all agreed that we’d found it difficult to get into the book, it took at least the first 150 pages and more. We believe this was partly due to the amount of characters and getting to grips with who was who and on which side.
We felt that we didn’t get emotionally attached to the characters until we’d got to grips with which side they were on.
We could tell that Le Carré had firsthand experience of espionage and deceit.
We also discussed the BBC adaptation of the book. Those of us who had watched it had enjoyed it on the whole albeit a bit graphic in places! There were variations to the book, notably that the past personal life of Jonathan Pine was not explored on t.v. but those who had read the book felt this was important when trying to understand why Jonathan did what he did.
We discussed that the story could continue in a sequel as there were unresolved storylines or stories that had potential to be continued further.
On the whole we enjoyed the book and would perhaps give it 6.5 out of 10.
From the Colyford Thursdays group
It was a first for many of us to be reading a novel after (and so very soon after) having seen the TV adaptation and, in the main, we agreed that it was not something we were that keen to do again. This, we thought, perhaps accounted for the fact that some of us found some difficulties connecting with the book as the events and the depictions of the characters therein did not always match with our expectations given what we had already seen on screen. Who were these people – Jeds with her “raggedy chestnut hair”, Roper – the “Adonis” and Jonathan Pine the “compact man with a fighter’s frame”? In line with these descriptions it was not at all surprising that the one member of the group who had not seen the TV show had mistakenly assumed that the cover sleeve picture of Tom Hiddleston showed the actor who had portrayed Roper rather than Pine!
Despite these misgivings there was praise for Le Carré’s writing style, the vivid scenes he created & the economy of language and metaphor he employed. The succinct description of the air hostess Meg as having a “bruised yet gallant sexuality” was highlighted as a great example. Several were inspired to read and/or spoke highly of some of his other novels.Many felt that the book was episodic in nature – sometimes seeming to be almost a travelogue of beautiful locations. Some parts were totally captivating & others, at times, a little dry. An example of the latter being some of these scenes with the River House/Enforcement Teams where some found it hard at times to distinguish between the characters – the endless grey suited men – especially given that they were sometimes referred to by their surnames whilst at other times their Christian names were used.There was some debate as to how realistic this depiction of treachery at the heart of the security services was & it was agreed that it was pretty depressing to accept this level of greed and corruption as an accurate presentation of those who were supposed to be on the side of the angels. Being cynical we were prepared to accept that this was perhaps realistic but took some comfort that this was the world of some 20 years ago and hopefully things had moved on for the better.
It was commented that the female characters in the book were very one dimensional with the emphasis firmly on the decorative. That said, there was praise for the way the character of Sophie loomed larger over Jonathan in the book than on the television with the repeated flashbacks showing her as the inspiration for his, at times, reckless pursuit of Roper.
We all agreed that one inspired feature of the TV adaptation was the conversion of Burr from Leonard into the heavily pregnant Angela played wonderfully by Olivia Coleman. It was positive to learn that Le Carré himself saw this as an improvement on his original and it certainly helped to modernise the story bringing the women out of the bedroom.
We spoke about Roper’s son Daniel – some felt that the language he used was not realistic for someone so young and that it had jarred for this reason. Others pointed out the boy’s life would have been so far from ordinary and that he would surely have been damaged by the dysfunctional life he had lived and the adult company he kept. As a result it would probably have been more surprising if he had spoken in a more typical manner.
Opinion was divided over the ending of the book – some found it unrealistic that Roper would have been allowed to sail off into the sunset purely to allow Jonathan & Jeds to go free. Others felt that the TV ending with him seemingly getting his comeuppance was a little too neat and that the only unrealistic part of the ending in the book was whether Roper really would have released them both given that he was aware of the powerful allies he had at the heart of the security services. We all agreed that the final pages of the book with the idyllic scenes of Jonathan & Jeds in their Cornish love nest were a bit far-fetched. With no reinvented identity or new location would they really be out of harm’s way?
We awarded the book 7/10 and 9/10 to the TV adaptation.
From the Exeter Group
Five of us met and discussed the book, and it was difficult for us not to spend a lot of time discussing the recent adaptation for the BBC. I think it is fair to say that we had all enjoyed both.
We all agreed that both the book and the TV drama gave Le Carré’s usual sense of sinister foreboding a good outing, though the TV drama had a markedly more upbeat ending. We thought that, unusually for this genre of writing, the characters were well developed and the plot (for the most part) believable. There was some complaint that Pine’s devotion to the child and to Jed was implausible, and that even in the book the reasons for this weren’t well explored. We thought perhaps this just formed part of a sense of duty towards the vulnerable. In the book, there was some suggestion that some of his actions were driven by guilt for his killing of a young IRA member, or perhaps out of a sense of duty to his father who had been in the army. This all seemed to have been absent in the mini-series.
We felt it was a shame that the whole section of the book which related his travels in Canada, and the acquisition of the passport, was omitted in the dramatization. There were some interesting and likeable characters here, and the drama was poorer without them.
Overall, we enjoyed the suspense, the beautiful scenery and of course the beautiful people in the film. It was inevitable that the dramatization lacked context, but it was nonetheless both sophisticated and satisfying in a way which one expects of Le Carré. Although the book is not Le Carré’s best work, it still carries the sense of menace and injustice typical of his writing. Anyone who hasn’t read Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, Smileys’ People, or The Little Drummer Girl, should go and do so.
We were all happy to give this book a 7 out of 10.
From the Colyford Tuesdays Group
Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy sealed his place for me as the espionage writer of our time. However, this post- cold war story The Night Manager is missing a proper villain. Roper, the arms dealer funneling guns to every wrong-headed cause in both hemispheres, seems a bit too contrived, more like a character in a Bond movie with Pine playing the 007 role.
Unfortunately for me I saw the TV production before reading the novel and had the faces and plot very fixed in my mind, so initially it was hard to visualise a male in the role of ex SIS Chief Leonard Burr. Occasionally this meant I had to pause to unravel who was saying what to whom.
Set earlier than the TV Series it contained more back story and different locations and I found the characters were more complex. However, the two women were annoyingly vulnerable and that was one reason I enjoyed the TV version of the story putting a woman in a strong role within the plot.
Overall I enjoyed the book and would score it 7/10.
From the Colyford Tuesdays Group
I did not see the recent TV series, but wish I had as it would have probably been easier to have followed the numerous characters and intrigues in the book. However, I know some people who watched the series did say there are some differences between the two, including physical descriptions of characters and locations of events, so this would have caused its own confusion.
A list of characters with a short description would have been useful similar to “My Brilliant Friend”. Perhaps such referencing should become standard in all books with more than four characters, in order to help an ever increasing aging population!
What I have managed to read I have found interesting and alarming…
Interesting: the fake murder in Cornwall and the fake kidnap of Daniel all went to convince Roper that Pine could join his set up. A bit like police plants who live two lives in order to gain inside knowledge. Must be scary living with the enemy!
Alarming: do our taxes pay the salaries of corrupt officials in British Intelligence who further profit from illegal arms trade?
April 2016: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense and generous hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.
From the Exeter Group
We discussed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, a novel initially set in Naples in the 1950s and focuses on the friendship of two girls. Both are eager and clever and an intellectual rivalry develops between them. Elena and Lila’s lives are entwined within friendships, families, boys, school and work. She brilliantly portrays life in a deprived area of Naples and particularly highlights the struggle for both women and girls in Neapolitan society.
Initially it felt a little irritating trying to remember who was related to whom and confusing Nino with Rino and in addition remembering various nicknames! However helpfully there is a list of characters at the beginning of the book rather like a Shakespeare play.
What is starkly evident in Ferrante’s novel is the absolute passion of the Italians. Her characters display rage, envy, aspiration, jealousy, passion and so much more. They are at times consumed with undying love and at others with a murderous desire to avenge a slight against them or their family. In fact, family is a strong theme throughout the book and the relationship between family members. As the novel progresses the fortunes of the two main characters change with their paths diverging and converging again. In parallel with this the fortunes of the neighbourhood also improve with evidence of financial prosperity to the businesses of the area.
The ending is neatly poised for a sequel …
From the Colyford Tuesdays Group
Found it compulsive reading, wanting to know what would happen next, but can’t say it met all expectations and wouldn’t recommend it as a must-read book.
Probably an accurate description of growing up in post-war Italy, and probably made us all reflect upon our own childhood, particularly the early years.
The book had a large number of characters, some with more than two names, which made it confusing and made us refer to the list of characters in the book, frequently.
Some thought more time could have been given to describe Naples, it’s scenery etc. Perhaps this was done deliberately so the reader concentrated on the story line?
It was felt that the characters all needed to move on, particularly the parents generation. We read dreadful stories of violent parents and between children. The stone throwing, and Lila being thrown out of the window, was particularly horrendous and graphic! Perhaps the author was writing about past experiences? Perhaps the author was demonstrating, through Lila and Lenu, the different ways in which girls/women at the time could survive the communities they lived in: Lila’s street-wise approach and Lenu’s quiet, studious approach contrasted, but both survived despite the hang-ups of their parents’ generation and the feuding of their peer group.
Mixed feelings about reading the next book(s).
Overall score: 7.5/10
From the Colyford Thursdays Group
Rumours had spread of very varying opinions and as suspected the ‘what did you think question’ produced very different responses – from absolutely lovely to rather laborious. One challenge was to convince one of our members who had not had the opportunity to read the book that it was worth reading!
One criteria for valuing a book is its ability to extend our knowledge of a different period, place or era and this book definatly delivered. None of us knew much about Naples in the 1950s and we were quite shocked to read about a young girl being thrown out of a window. Our enthusiastic reader had read on further in the quartet of novels by Elana Ferrante and one gathered that as the novels develop so did the description of the politics of Naples and Italy.
The other criteria for valuing a book is identifying with or caring for the characters and I suspect this was one area we had differing opinions. Elena was generally liked and respected but Lila was an enigma and confusing. One interesting speculation was about Nico’s leaning! We probably did not debate the characters motives and personality as much as usual perhaps the style of writing had an effect. To a certain extent the way the book was written as a narrative rather use of dialogue gave a distinctive style to the book. We did appreciate the beauty of some of the writing and sentences.
This lead to a discussion of the translator and more interestingly the author. The book was translated by Ann Goldstein – an editor on the New Yorker but the character of the author provoked more discussion. Elana Ferrante is an enigma and only known to her publishers. In quote from a letter in 1991 – she wrote “ I believe that books, once are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t” There is a theory that this book could be autobiographical and the respect she has received added to our discussion and we did agree that many of her admirers were female writers like Zadie Smith so maybe it is a book that appeals most to women.
When we voted our assessments of the book – the average score was 7.3 reflecting differing opinions from 9 down to 5. The discussion was lively and probably all of us came away with more appreciation of the book . Those who had not finished the book were probably more inclined to finish and our new reader thought she might give it a whirl! On the other side I suspect the doubters will not be reading on!
February 2016: The Humans by Matt Haig
After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog.
What could possibly make someone change their mind about the human race . . . ?
From E in the Colyford Group.
The Humans by Matt Haig was a light read set in academic circles along the lines of Kingsley Amis or David Lodge. I felt the sci-fi conceit got off to a clumsy start (the editor’s fault I think based on the author’s comments at the back), but I was quite open to it once I had construed it (having fairly recently read Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, to whom I saw a nod in the naming of planet Vonnedoria) to be an allegory for the protagonist’s decline into mental illness (delusions of grandeur, which according to Wikipedia are generally fantastic and typically do have a supernatural, science-fictional, or religious theme). I thought the themes around mental illness were handled lovingly, especially the positive impact on the father-son dynamic and the on the overall humanity of the protagonist. There were some funny bits around husband / wife domestic politics. The literary / cultural references were kept in reasonable check, were pop rather than pompous, and were actually in great taste. I enjoyed the stuff about pure maths, which again was kept interesting and accessible. It was a good book club book.
From the Exeter Group
The Humans attempts to expose the dystopian life of humankind on Planet Earth by placing an alien amongst the midst of the professorial Cambridge middle-classes. A life form from “a galaxy far, far away” takes over both the human body of Professor Andrew Martin and his life. However the super-intelligence of this alien species is not enough to be able to mimic his personality or to recall his memories. Therefore the alien has to learn on the job so to speak!
Initially repelled by the human form, behaviour, food and other characteristics of humans; slowly the alien is drawn in to the subtleties of human interaction and is particularly touched by the altruistic behaviour of his “wife”. Despite being sent to Earth to destroy close associates of Prof Martin, he unwittingly becomes protective of them. Eventually he recognises this himself and chooses dystopian Earth over utopian Vonnadoria.
Sadly this book was not well-liked with a feeling that the author was not offering anything new or prosaic. It was suggested that the book may have reflected his own depression and recovery from it. A gradual awakening of the serotonin deprived brain cells to food, conversation, touch, sex and an acceptance that life is not perfect.
The ending was felt to be hurried and weak with the assumption that he rekindled his relationship with Prof Martin’s wife. The long list of “advice for a human” was criticised as too long.
We felt that the wife may have twigged a little earlier that something stranger than a break-down may have occurred in view of the persistent amnesia regarding previous shared experiences and the total change in character of her husband! Parts were enjoyed and amusing, for example the relationship with the family dog and the interaction with the city tramp.
One alternative suggestion was that the whole book was autobiographical depicting a past psychotic episode running naked through Cambridge convinced of being an alien sent to prevent the world from certain doom!
Either way, the result is a score of 4.8/10
From the Colyford Tuesdays Group
Overall the group gave this a 7/8 out of 10 recommendation. It was both thought provoking, humorous and in parts a bit of a tear jerker. We would as a group recommend it as a holiday read.
“Humorous and clever, romantic in parts as well as a tear jerker. Somewhat mawkish in parts it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book overall. The relationship between Gulliver and his alien Dad was so touching and I remember well the angst that comes with a teenage boy that ‘nobody understands’, least of all his parents.”
“I thought this book was a quick and easy read, with some funny bits. I liked the relationship between Gulliver and his ‘new Dad’ who came along just at the right time for Gulliver, to help him get through some difficult times. Quite thought provoking about what it is to be human, for example when humans were described as doing the things they had to do, despite not being tasks they necessarily enjoyed doing. When they did get to do the things they enjoyed doing, they often felt guilty about doing them and so soon returned to what they thought they ought to be doing. Sounds familiar!”
Interestingly, the book is depicted as a comedy, by the book cover. Although there are some humorous parts, at the same time it tries to go deeper and become more sensitive eg the list he gave Gulliver to prepare him for later life, which was particularly enjoyed by the group. One additional line of thought was that the alien was not actually an alien at all, but instead was the Dad suffering a mental breakdown. As a group we explored this notion further and yes there were times when perhaps this worked with the story line, though there were incidents such as the Dad and Gulliver falling off the roof which as a group we had more difficulty with. However given the ending, which resulted in the alien removing the other alien and yet this being unnoticed by his superiors in outer space – perhaps this is what the author was trying to relay to his readers ie a man going through a mental breakdown and coming out the other end a completely changed person.
So not only a comedic, touching read but ended up being fairly thought provoking.
From the Colyford Thursdays Group
We all responded positively to this book which we felt was a quirky, refreshingly compelling yet relatively easy read.
We enjoyed the heart-warming story of an alien sent to earth on a destructive mission with an initially negative view of mankind slowly falling in love with & ultimately celebrating humanity notwithstanding its undeniable negative aspects and limitations.
We warmed to the main characters – to Andrew himself, his long suffering wife Isabel and, in particular, to the struggling teenager Gulliver. We also enjoyed the scenes with minor characters – with Ari at the football and Winston Churchill in the park. We cringed at the scenes involving Maggie. The book made us laugh in parts but also left us feeling positive and inspired about life.
We then had a lengthy discussion about whether we were right to accept the book at face value as the story of an alien sent to earth to destroy all traces of a mathematical breakthrough. Should we not rather view it rather as an allegory or fable about mental illness and the isolation, paranoia and detachment which this brings and how it can be overcome?
This discussion was prompted by the notes at the end of the book in which the author discussed his own struggles with depression and how literature had helped him survive the lows and create a map allowing him to return to normality. Thus we wondered whether Andrew at the start of the book was just Andrew undergoing a mental collapse brought on by stresses at work and at home. So not an alien at all but just a man who had lost his way. This would perhaps explain the naked walk through town which had jarred initially – surely the alien race would have been better prepared and aware of such a point of etiquette given the brief to “blend in”.
The fact that he was so convinced that he was responsible for the deaths of the 2 other professors we felt could be viewed as an example of the paranoid delusions which mentally ill people have to endure. We did struggle a bit following this interpretation to account for the miraculous cures that were spread through the book – Andrew’s own short lived facial scars, the dog, Newton re-gaining his sight and Gulliver seemingly being brought back to life after jumping of the roof. However we did feel that we could interpret the struggle in the kitchen with the “replacement” as Andrew’s struggle with his depression here personified by Jonathan who was described as “a monster, a beast, something other”. It seemed poignant that Gulliver played a supporting role in this victory showing the importance of family support in recovery.
Whether we were supposed to read it at face value or from this perspective, we were agreed that the book was undeniably coloured by the authors’ personal struggles with depression. We learnt that Emily Dickinson whose poetry brought comfort to Andrew had also struggled with the condition. Some felt that the section containing the 97 tips for a happy life which Andrew gave to Gulliver was a little over long and a bit sentimental but there were some gems in there that really rang true. There was real beauty in the passages in which Andrew learned to relish the joys of life – in nature, from spending time with his dog, from peanut butter and Australian wine. Most importantly from connection with friends and family. We felt that we could all learn a lesson about these things that are so easily forgotten in the face of the stresses of daily life. Andrew had been ambitious and had achieved great success at work, he had made the big breakthrough but at too great a personal cost.
We awarded the book 8/10.