The Book Group continues to meet as and when possible adhering to ever-changing guidelines.
Authors and books we have enjoyed at Book Group and recommend for our members.
Lemn Sissay - My Name is Why
Delia Owens - Where the Crawdads Sing
Sarah Winman - A Year of Marvellous Ways
Douglas Stuart - Shuggie Bain
The works of Jane Austen
The works of the Bronte sisters
The Slough series, and other books by Mick Herron
The Girl with a Pearl Earring
The Last Runaway
A Single Thread
The Kite Runner
A Thousand Splendid Sons
And the Mountains Echoed
Kamila Shamsie - Home Fire
Jojo Moyes - Me Before You
James Bowen - A Street Cat named Bob
Philippa Gregory - A Respectable Trade
Laura Franke - This is How it Always is
Kristin Hannah - The Nightingale
Helen Dunmore - Birdcage Walk
Anthony Doerr - All the Light We Cannot See
M.L.Steadman - The Light Between Oceans
Gail Honeyman - Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Victoria Hislop -
Those Who are Loved
Tim Pears - The West Country Trilogy
Tara Westover - Educated
Joanna Trollop - City of Friends
The Salt Path
The Wild Silence
Jessie Burton - The Miniaturist
Sarah Perry - The Essex Serpent
Here are some book reviews which we think our members might be interested in.
Snap by Belinda Bauer
A crime novel
Eleven year old Jack is left with his two younger sisters In a broken down car on a stifling hot day when his heavily pregnant mother makes the "snap" decision to leave the children in the car while she goes for help. She tells Jack that he is in charge and that she won't be long.
Snap decisions can be dangerous,and this is not the last one in the story.
Jack's mother doesn't come back. She is found stabbed to death, an unusual bloodstained knife is discovered nearby. The murderer has is not found. When the children's father "goes out for milk" and never returns, the children's lives are changed forever.
Three years later Jack is still in charge of his sisters, supporting them, and making sure nobody knows they're alone in the house. He turns to burglary, stealing food to help his family survive, until he makes a shocking discovery.
This is a clever and engaging story, a real page turner,with strong characters and a gripping plot, it looks at devastating loss and abandonment. It is not gory story and is at times funny and sad.
Described as "the best crime novel I read in a long time" by Val McDermott.
Shortlisted for the Theakstons old peculiar crime novel of the year 2019.
If you like this book you may also like:
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. The first book in the brilliant historical crime mystery series.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, published this September
Any book by Ruth Rendell, a writer of exceptional psychological crime novels.
For a fascinating look at solving real life crimes try Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd, the life and many deaths of Britain's top forensic pathologist.
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
This is the first of a series called the Slough House books. Mick Herron is an award-winning crime writer. The Slough House books are currently being developed for a television series with Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb.
This book was recommended by Rosemary and reviewed by Julia. It met with mixed reviews from the group.
If you are someone who enjoys TV crime dramas and thrillers like Line of Duty, then this might be a book for you. It describes how a bunch of previous MI5 operatives, who have been “set aside”, co-exist, somewhat seedily, on a daily basis. The cleverly devised plot has frequent twists and turns as information about each character and the web of their past relationships is gradually revealed. I found it easy to read, well observed and think it would appeal to those with a sense of black humour. I would say I did enjoy reading it and was keen to know what the next turn of events would be, and why. There are violent events but they are described as facts with mainly appropriate emotional responses from characters and without detailed indulgent descriptions. I suspect it is a “Marmite” book. The first of a series for those who enjoy it or find it interesting. I think I will read more of these, but might wait until our own external world is in a better place.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
This was recommended by Mary and reviewed by Shirley, Ros and Rosemary. It was very popular with the group.
It is set in wartime France, the separate and intertwined stories of two sisters, Isabelle and Viann, who both make a brave contribution during the occupation. Kristin Hannah, an American, based the story on a Belgian woman who she researched which led her to want to know more about the French occupation.
I found this a compulsive read and thought provoking, but I somehow did not feel as emotionally engaged with Vianne as I did with Isabelle. I don't know why. This novel certainly showed the real horrors of war and the strength and courage that people can find within themselves to help others and still feel able to love.
Having finished The Nightingale, I wanted to say that I am glad I read it. It was about the experience of the two sisters in the French occupation. I thought both were heroic, Isabelle (The Nightingale) because she did not have the responsibility of children and Vianne because she did. I loved the characterisation of Vianne, just a little more subtle than of Isabelle because of her personality possibly, and the drawing of their relationship and the memory at the end of their mother’s saying that “someday they would be best friends, time would stitch their lives together”. I could empathise with that having sisters! The horror of the occupation made it a dreadful book though, not only because of the brutality but also I thought the sub-theme of lack of value placed on children’s life during the period. Vianne alludes to that at the end in its effect on Sophie. It is an interesting reflection in the context of the covid crisis too. I am glad to have read it but I would not wish to read it again because it was harrowing.
There were so many threads to tie up at the end. Did she ever tell her husband, what happened to Ari, and what about Gaëtan??? It was done very neatly I thought and escaped sentimentality. I think it is a book which will remain with me, whilst others get forgotten, as you know! Thank you Mary for recommending it.
I really enjoyed this book. As Hilary said I found it gripping, lots of emotions, from happiness to sadness, anger, fright and frustration. But a lovely story which from my point of view seemed well researched. I couldn't put it down.
My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay
I first became aware of Lemn Sissay a couple of years ago when he was interviewed on Desert Island Discs and thought, ‘now here’s an interesting character’, so when I came across this book I decided to buy it.
Lockdown on a warm Summer’s day saw me taking a break from making scrubs and relaxing in the garden with my copy and that was it, I was hooked from the opening line. Here is the story of a boy whose life in the care system seems to lack any love and was often brutal. It is his memoir about his early life in foster care through to being placed in a children’s home and other establishments. He speaks poignantly for himself but also for any person brought up in care during the 1960’s and 70’s. He talks of the bullying and racism he experienced and the light bulb moment when he saw Lenny Henry perform on stage.
It took Lemn 30 years to access the records of the 18 years he spent in the care of the local authority. Once he obtained the four fat files recording the details of his life as the authority perceived it, the question was what to do with the information? He decided to read it although others armed with their files did not, choosing rather to burn them.
As a poet, he was the designated poet of the 2012 Olympics, he is exceptional with words. Each chapter starts with a verse from one of his poems. Chapter 1 starts:-
Awake among the lost and found
The files left on the open floor
The frozen leaves on frosted ground
The frosted keys in a frozen door
To me this epitomizes the trepidation he felt in opening those files, and encapsulates the coldness of that life. ‘Eighteen years of records written by strangers. All the answers to all my questions were here. Possibly. And yet, I feared what they would reveal about me or what they’d reveal about the people entrusted with my care. What truths or untruths? Maybe I was loved? Maybe my mother didn’t want me. Maybe it was my own fault. Maybe the bath taps were not electrified. Maybe that was a false memory syndrome.’
The book is guided by entries from his files and these in themselves make interesting reading. They take us through his life and he contrasts these entries with his own memories of the time. It was many years before he found out his real name and the awakening of who he really was. This name was his and not one ‘borrowed’ from someone else. There seems to be some arrogance in the first social worker naming him, Norman, after himself; the insistence by his foster parents that he takes their surname, yet these people become only transient in his life.
Recording his child’s perception, he questions himself about the situation he finds himself in and whether he is at fault. He identifies differences in his memories of what happened at key points in his life and what is reported in his files. There are some heart wrenching moments such as being placed in a children’s home days before Christmas. This all takes place against a backdrop of the many inadequacies and abuses which have taken place in the ‘care’ system and have come to light in recent years.
His writing is powerful and emotive as one would expect from one who has built his life on words. His image of the beautiful laburnum tree in the front garden of his foster home becomes symbolic of his life – the beauty belying the poison of the seeds that follow; the image of the mechanical ‘clack, clack’ of the typewriter recording his life and then, of course, there is his poetry. The book is full of sadness and challenges but also one of hope:-
Meet me by the morning
On the corner of the night
Where mist rises
And hope’s insight
His life could have so easily gone in a different direction but thanks to a remarkable social worker who saw his potential he became an acclaimed writer and poet. He is heavily involved in charitable work and has become a champion for all those who have been in care.
‘I am not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal.’
He ends with a selection of his poems and a list of charities offering support.
The book is short but powerful and gives much insight into a life not only of someone in care but someone in care who is black in a predominantly white community.
More about Lemn Sissay can be found on the Imagine documentary on the BBC iPlayer, ‘Memory of Me’.
A Year of Marvellous Ways
by Sarah Winman
This book was recommended to me by Vanessa and what a delight it turned out to be.
The story is set mainly in Cornwall after World War II. It envelopes you in its description of the county - its smell, sound and look, and the people who live there, particularly an old woman and a young soldier. The old woman is warm and eccentric, the young man shattered by war and heartbroken. Quoting The Times, it is ‘magical and healing’.
To me, it was moving, memorable, singular and whimsical; almost an epic poem - and I loved it.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Reviewed by Hilary
This is a weighty book, both physically & mentally; physically, because it takes some doing to hold the book up when reading in bed at night and mentally because, even after the reading the whole thing, I am not sure I fully understand American politics except on a very superficial level.
This book covers Obama's 1st term in office, from his meteoric rise as a senator to the White House in 2008. There is more to come!
He is a gifted writer and comes across as, primarily, a loving family man. He is idealistic, naive in the early years when he inherits from George Bush a global economic crisis, intelligent [he has a degree in law], kind & humorous and, above all, driven to try and make the world a better place; centering on health care, education, better working conditions for the 'ordinary' American, safety for all and improved relations with other countries, particularly Russia & China, with regard to global warming & climate change.
As Vaclav Havel, the former leader of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism,[known as the 'Velvet Revolution'], said to Obama:
"You've been cursed with people's high expectation because it means they are easily disappointed. I fear it can be a trap"
Perhaps the same could be said of Nelson Mandela when he left prison and came to power in South Africa?
There is only one point upon which I feel uneasy - Obama's belief that it is America's duty to lead the world in change for the better. I liken it to the early missionaries who set sail with enthusiasm for Africa and the East in order to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Perhaps you disagree?
I would recommend this book if you feel in need of a read in to which you can get your teeth.
I was impressed - the book has integrity and, above all, hope.
A Journey Through the Nineteenth Century with Female Authors by Julia D-S
I suppose my desire to learn more about nineteenth century women strengthened with the centenary celebrations for some women getting the vote. I wanted to know more about these women. What drove them on with such courage? Reading more about individuals; for example Lady Constance Lytton in her own words 'Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences', helped me to understand that, as well as claiming gender equality per se, these women were fighting for the right to care for and protect their children. At that time, children were viewed legally as the property of their fathers. Women wanted the vote to help effect changes to the law. I became more interested in what power women could exercise in their lives. The nineteenth century is full of examples of women whose work was plagiarized by men; authors, artists, scientists. I wanted to know how these women viewed the world they lived in. As the first lockdown set in and with more time for reading, I decided to set out on a journey, working chronologically through the works of nineteenth century classical female authors.
The journey began with Jane Austen. Like many of you I had seen the film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma and was keen to know how true they were to the original novels. I have not been disappointed: Jane Austen's writing is full of life, humour and astute observation. Even though she was writing two hundred years ago, her characters and many scenarios could have been lifted from a modern sitcom. For example, the scolding Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park with her reprimands; ' That is a very foolish trick, Fanny, to be idling away all the evening upon a sofa……You should learn to think of other people; and take my word for it, it is a shocking trick for a young person to be always lolling upon a sofa'.
I had already read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This must be one of the most misrepresented works of literature ever. Frankenstein is an astounding book, especially considering it was written by a seventeen year old. Mary did not receive full credit for the work until a later edition was published in 1831, when she was thirty four years old. The first edition was published anonymously, but as her husband, Percy Blythe Shelley, the (in)famous poet wrote the preface, anyone would have been forgiven for thinking it had been his work. For me, the monster was not wrought of flesh and blood but was an emotional metaphor representing the result of careless and inhuman acts, undertaken by the monster's creator, Dr Frankenstein. The distress of the monster elicited denial, misery and guilt in Dr Frankenstein, who was perhaps the real monster. You only need to consider the many tragedies in Mary Shelley's young life, to see how she must have learned a great deal about the meanings of guilt and despair.
Next I am looking forward to the Bronte sisters. What better atmospheric reading for chilly winter nights with howling winds and thick snow falls, curling up with a warm blanket and cup of hot chocolate (plus marshmallows of course!), listening out for Cathy tap tapping on the window….?
Bringing up the last half of the nineteenth century; I read George Eliot when I was younger and felt that I had never read any finer book than Middlemarch. It will be interesting to return to it after thirty years or so of life experience. I anticipate turning the corner into the twentieth century with Thomas Hardy. Not a woman of course, but he does write some wonderful, resilient female characters: Tess or Bathsheba Everdene for example. His own relationship with his wife is so interesting and with their home, Maxgate, on our doorstep. So far, reading these classics really has enabled me to see why they have become classics. Which novels of the twentieth century will stand the test of time, I wonder…
Shuggie Bain is the first novel of Douglas Stuart, and won the Man Booker prize for fiction in 2020. This was not a surprise as it is an important book, beautifully and traditionally written, sometimes “Dickensian” in its characterisation, dealing with contemporary issues, telling the story of Shuggie's mother, the beautiful Agnes Bain, who lives with addiction, and Shuggie's life with her and his family in the poverty of post-industrial 1980's Glasgow. Douglas Stuart grew up in Glasgow and lost his mother who suffered from addiction, in his teenage years. He does not describe the book as a memoir, but as a novel which is drawn from a wealth of personal experiences. However, as a book group member said, it has commonalities with Frank McCourt's “Angela's Ashes, a memoir”.
Agnes Bain has three children, two from a first marriage which she left for Big Shug Bain, a sort of Bill Sykes character, a philanderer and a bully, and father to Shuggie, who tiring of Agnes, dumps the family in the poorest part of Glasgow, a long abandoned mining area with an abandoned community living in its run down dwellings. There Shuggie becomes used to the taunting which as an effeminate little boy in 1980's Glasgow he receives. Agnes loves her children and is ambitious, and fastidious, but she has an addiction, and the story follows her gradual decline with ups and downs along the way. Stuart describes it as a love story, the love of children for their parents despite everything. The three children support their mother as best they can, for as long as they each individually can until she only has Shuggie left. Much of the story describes without judgement, what Shuggie sees and hears and how he copes from day to day with everything that is put in front of him. There is desperation, sadness, violence, bullying, love and humour and as Douglas Stuart says “things” which he knows “readers may not want to read about”. But it is also a hopeful book, about survival and looking forward rather than back.
I recommended this book whilst conscious of the uncomfortable read it can be. Sometimes I had to put it down because it is emotional, and in places it is profoundly shocking, not only because of some of the language or incidents but because you remember that Shuggie is a child. One member of the book group said they could not put it down. Another had read it on kindle but had to buy it, and likewise it is a book which I revisit and has occupied my mind for different reasons at different times It is also a reminder that this is not the past, that Shuggie was fifteen in 1992, and poverty and all its associated problems still exist, but are all too often hidden, overlooked, tolerated and ignored in the United Kingdom, even though another great writer published Oliver Twist in 1838.
I hope if you choose to read the book that you will love Shuggie, may ponder on what the future holds for him, and find it as absorbing as I did.
Douglas Stuart went to the Royal College of Art after his mother died, became a successful fashion designer and now writes and lives in New York. He has been interviewed many times about Shuggie Bain and is a delight to listen to. Look out for him on:
youtube, Writing Matters,
www.5x15.com with Rosie Boycott
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
reviewed by Ros