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Books and coffee

Book Group   

This Group is for people who enjoy reading. The books we choose come from an eclectic background and may be contemporary novels, well known classics, not so well known books and members favourites. These can be fiction or non fiction.

There is no particular format for discussion, some may not have finished the book, some will have enjoyed it, others not, but this in no way deters from lively and often humorous discussion. The books are chosen and agreed by members, normally on a 6 months basis.

We meet from 2pm - 4pm on the fourth Tuesday of the month at Isleburgh, in the Radio Room. We occasionally have to change rooms, but the exact room will be displayed on the Isleburgh information board in Reception.

New members are always welcome. Come along to a meeting and see what you think, you may find it difficult not to join in the discussion.

Contact for the group is Barbara Gray at barbarajgray8@gmail.com





 Dates for 2021

26 January        The House by the Loch by Jackie Kay

23 February      Endurance: Shackleton's incredible voyage by Alfred Lansing

30 March          Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

27 April             Rites of Passage by William Golding

25 May              Life by Life by Kate Atkinson

22 June             A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

27 July

24 August

28 September

26 October

23 November

December:           No meeting

Further reading to be decided.





Book Reviews for 2021

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark


I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is well written, absorbing, and held my attention to the end. Kirsty Wark obviously loves the landscape, and I did get slightly lost in the place names at times, but I just let that go and concentrated on the people. Recommended!

Oh what a tangled web we weave ….” Seems to be an appropriate comment to make on the story Kirsty Wark has given us with this book. It depicts a family which appears, at first hand, to be content with life and all that gives them. But then as we look back into history we find that Walter has acted for the best of reasons ( he believes) and that his actions have affected so many of his family group. Surely we can all be guilty of loving someone too much at some time? “The House by the loch” is well written and Wark uses language engagingly. The story has a basis in a true event and she shows her journalistic expertise in relating these happenings and interweaving her own fictional drama. It is a good book and I am glad I read it, however it didn’t quite “hook” me. I will recommend it to others as a book which will successfully pass the time.

 Am I the only one I wonder who finds their response to a Bookgp novel materially brought into focus by its close juxtaposition with something else being read at the same time.

I was unsure, when this book arrived, whether it would prove to be an example of over-energetic TV journalist channeling her inner Tolstoy. Reading Wark, I couldn’t at first define why I was finding her unsatisfying, but set against another, vastly more proficient writer, her inherent clumsiness - how to handle back stories, a narrative line frequently obscured by extraneous detail, an effortful writing style - did clarify in my mind. Surely too this was a very journalistic liking for sensationalism. The character list was so complicated that I thought of Maureen - do you remember? - coming with a list she had written to sort out who was who. But the characters, unsubtly drawn, lacked credibility. They were plot devices. Though I did wait hopefully (I am a nasty person...) for beloved grandad to suffer his surely preordained cardiac arrest. No such luck. Perhaps, having confessed all, he might be allowed a tasteful painless slip away in his sleep. I finally decided that the real issue hiding in this novel is the effect of maternal disfunctionality on a family. But hidden under a profusion of verbiage is the author’s inability to decide what kind of book she actually wants to write - is it a thriller? Or a multi-generation family saga ? She wants it all. So she puts everything in. And the effect of putting everything in, as any fule kno, is to end up with a dog’s dinner.

No idea how came that I was reading the "Legacy of Elisbeth Pringle" (in some german paperback) before getting the copy of "The house by the Loch". As I did enjoy the first one very much about life on Aran, all the descriptions of plants and birds and some romantic envolvement as well, I was full of expectations when starting the next one. As usual I did make the mistake not making a family tree at the beginning - therefore I did find the first part very confusing. But then I did enjoy, perhaps a bit too dramatic for my liking with all the alcohol and depression. Again it was language, description of landscape and plants I did enjoy most. So in the end: many thanks for recommending it!

As I was the one to suggest this book I’ve made a bit more of an effort. I was happy to read it for a second time within the space of a few months.  It’s not my usual kind of book being more about happenings than about character. Knowing already that later in the story there will be life changing incidents makes it a different read and this time it has an edge on it perhaps because I know that it won’t be lovely for long. Maybe because of this the start seems a bit slow but then I got into the love between Walter and Jean and started to uncover the unhappiness of Edith and then Jean and then Fiona. Kirsty Wark takes her time to slowly reveal these mind states so that I gradually came to understand what was going on. Walter’s response to Jean and her mother is gentle, appreciative and kindly, though, as it turns out, not really understanding  what he was being faced with, or avoiding it. The book is very good on the pain of Iona’s accident and how unconsciously it repeats something for Jean. This is a nice little twist to the story as Jean did not know that the injured boy’s brother was driving the boat that caused the accident, but it’s almost as if she did.  The book is also very good on Walter’s love of Mary,  tenderly and feelingly reciprocated, less described, more like felt. Jean’s death is also very beautiful in the way Kirsty conveys Walter’s sadness and love and illustrates so well how hard I imagine it would be to care for a person I love who has an alcohol problem and know the best way to help. And it is difficult to read of the sadness between two people who love each other but can’t  be happy together because they have not been honest with each other at the start, the cause of a destructive addiction. Several strands in the novel make me think about buddhist notions of karma: Jean had been unable to tell Walter that she might be unhappy to live away from Ayr; Walter doesn’t pick this up, is attached to the lake and assumes that Jean and his children will be equally so; Jean, because unhappy about where she is living becomes more and more dependent on both Walter and alcohol to feel all right but she feels held on a downward track which she cannot get off even though she knows it will lead to her ruin . Jean’s terrible motoring accident seems to repeat itself in Iona’s death caused by the boy’s brother, almost as a kind of poetic justice, so it feels. Another connected strand is how things get handed down through the generations. Edith married the wrong man and compensated for her unhappiness by hiding away and creating a beautiful garden. So she couldn’t drive her daughter to hospital when in Labour. Jean was also unhappy about where she was living and allowed herself to be locked away by the loch just as Edith had been in Ayr. Walter’s sense of Jean in Carson added another dimension of the writer’s understanding of how characteristics get handed down through generations of family. I am reminded of how Manop did not tell me that he did not want to move to Edinburgh in 2011. That resulted in some difficult times as it was never spoken, only felt. We were careful not to make the same mistake coming to Shetland. It reminds me of how, even after years in relationship it is sometimes difficult to know what is going on and that a nasty surprise can easily be just around the corner.  Kirsty writes about these things with understanding and knowledge, I would say. The only issue I take with her is her description of alcoholism as a disease. A ruinous and often inescapable path, following experiences in a person’s life yes, a disease, no.  There is also forgiveness in the story, such an essential in life it seems to me and despite the opposite feeling sometimes, good people are usually around, such as the fishermen who took Carson out on the loch and understood what this meant for her and were gentle and thoughtful with her and indeed this was a lovely way to bring the story to a close. Kirsty describes things all very human and imperfect. Not great literature perhaps but lots to think about in the book and it has made me feel real in a way that others haven’t and I am grateful for it. 

I quite enjoyed this book but I would not call it a great read.  I enjoyed the descriptions of an area and landscape and I used to know quite well but have not been back for some 30+ years. This unchanging landscape was an excellent backdrop for the turbulence experienced by the family. This was a predominantly sad book which finished with hope for a way forward.  The characters and the family with their flaws, trials and tribulations were believable but I did not become involved with them or their story.  I was always outside. The complex plot took us on an emotional journey and kept a degree of suspense throughout. It's a book for a wet weekend when there's no chance of outdoor adventures.  Will I read it again?  No!  Would I recommend it?  Selectively.  I do have friends who would revel in it but others who would run a mile at the very idea.  Will I read another by Kirsty Wark?  I might in convalescence. 

I haven't finished to book yet - hope to do so before zoom. Its easy to read quickly and I'm happily whizzing through it though not particularly engaged by it. I've long been an admirer of Kirsty's but while she may be enjoying exploring a new direction I'm not sure this is where her real talents lie. I'm finding it a bit too clunky - full of literary cliches and not entirely convincing characters so I don't feel particularly concerned by what happens to them. However Kirsty shows she knows the area well and I've visited it on quite a few occasions so its pleasant from that point of view. I wouldn't read it again - but with so many books to read I rarely re-read a book (though I sometimes dip back into special favourites) so that doesn't signify much.


Endurance: Shackleton's incredible voyage by Alfred Lansing

I recommended this book because I found the story amazing. I am pretty sure that I would have given up and expired if I woke up one day and realized that I was on a ship was locked in the ice and the chances that I would survive the next few months were almost zero…well in truth, I would never have set out on such a voyage in the first place. However, the crew never gave up. They were strong in mind as well as in body. They suffered incredible hardships in order to survive the bitter cold, and navigate the roughest ocean waters in the world. Against all odds, all of the crew survived mostly due to Shackleton’s leadership and Worsley’s navigational skills although all of the crew had a hand in the fact that the entire crew managed to survive the journey. My favorite type of books belong to the categories of history and biographies. I enjoy reading why and how historical figures did what they did. This book was one that I particularly enjoyed. The photographer, Frank Hurley, employed for Shackleton’s incredible voyage managed to document the trip and those historical photos certainly added to my understanding of how dire their situation really was and what they managed to accomplish. I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the artifacts from the Endurance and Shackleton’s voyage when I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge a few years ago. Re-reading this book certainly made me realize that the lockdown we have suffered through since March of last year is really quite minor in the historical sense of what explorers like Shackleton and his crew endured.

How ironic that Lansing’s book  was to be scheduled to be read by our group during a phase of weather that gave us all a taste of white beauty and bitter temperatures. We were fortunate – we have wonderful things called Gritters, as well as central heating, double glazing, good warm food and help close at hand. The men of this story lacked so much for their daily living requirements. Nature and misfortune played a ghastly game with them. Lansing’s book tells us of their courage, resilience and –most of all – their trust in “The Boss”. Shackleton must be one of history’s most complex leaders of any venture. His aim was that they would survive whatever happened and by knowing his men he was able to adjust and re-adjust to the constantly changing situations and see that, at the end of their trials, all would be well. Shackleton himself was (and still is) a puzzle. This man pulled his team through a truly harrowing expedition. Deep down inside him was an exceptional person of indomitable spirit who inspired terrific loyalty from the other men. Unfortunately though his civilian life was not so successful. His attempts at business projects to raise funds for both personal reasons and for further exploration projects failed dismally. Lansing’s descriptions of the landscapes, the wildlife, life on board the “Endurance”, the ice-floes and the small boats on the sea crossing involve the reader so well that you feel the cold, see the glaciers, fear the leopard seals and – somehow - eat the food. I felt exhausted by it all as one catastrophe seemed to follow another. However I am glad that I read this book and I will recommend it to those I think will be able to take what I felt at times was an assault on my emotions. Thank you to the member who put it forward for us.

There's a lot about this book to like - nicely produced, nice clear wee map, best of all not endless phoney recommendations.  In fact Bonnington's characteristically terse summing up - a superb and very readable account - makes the point.  It's a pro job and brings the whole extraordinary venture clearly, at times painfully, alive.  My husband commented, it's a book to read when you're well fed and cosy by the fire ! It's also a study of leadership.  Shackleton's personality was undoubtedly crucial in keeping his team together and giving them the sustained will to battle endlessly onward.  The skills that they had, the caprices of fate (sometimes pro, sometimes anti), the knife-edge decision making -  all to be met appropriately at the time;  so much, ultimately, inevitably, devolved on his shoulders.  He bore the lonely burden of leadership, and if at times he wavered, who could be arrogant enough to criticise.  The last three months when he tried repeatedly from South Georgia to reach EIephant Island and was beaten back - Lancing rather minimises the point, but the cumulative stress, and anxiety for his marooned men,  took a toll on the Boss from which he never entirely recovered.  Truly a nightmare situation. I have only one small quibble.  To the best of my recollection when they got back to England all those men promptly joined the army.  An short epilogue - And Afterwards - might have been good. But otherwise a great story.

A good read, somewhat to my surprise as I hadn’t been looking forward to it. The descriptions of the extreme cold and harshness were convincing. These descriptions sometimes went on a bit too long I thought, becoming dreary, much as maybe it felt to the party and I found myself hoping desperately to read something different much as the participants maybe might have hoped to experience something different. However the writing is skilful at holding tension and kept me reading. I didn’t understand quite a lot of the nautical explanations/descriptions and I would have liked a better map than the one provided so I could see where events were taking place. The only thing I wondered about was the absence of any descriptions of relationships which I imagine there would have been, of one sort or another. There would have been liaisons, friendships, maybe love affairs. The mid June party with men dressing as women and being flirtatious would have continued into the night in some cases I am sure but there is no mention of this.  On the other hand the icy conditions may have cooled any ardour, although it wasn't icy all the time and on the boat out they were cozy enough, so I felt something was missing. On the other hand the Wolfenden report came out in 1957, two years before Lansing wrote this so the sexual aspect  was not a subject yet commonly aired or written or spoken about, being an  illegal activity. Still, there would have been close loving friendships which could have been written about but…nothing. I found that disappointing.

I felt this was a well written and exiting account of a strange journey, but I would have preferred reading it in the summer rather than while the snow was on the ground! It was a harrowing story, and seemed to lack much variety of tone, which gave the reader a strong sense of the monotony and pain of the men’s stories. But while I was impressed by their strength of character and cooperation, and relieved that all had survived, I found myself questioning why any such expedition should ever have been started. Did it enlarge our knowledge of the world?

I did NOT want to read this book.  I have had trouble with such like tales before, which I have found very disturbing.  However, I decided that I had better at least start Endurance.  I am glad I did!   It captivated me and I read every word.  I found it gripping and exciting as well as harrowing.  I liked the straightforward way Alfred Lansing told his story, without great dramatic or emotional writing.  There was more than sufficient drama and emotion in the tale itself!  He gives us the unpleasant and mucky details of the life these characters led without needing to exaggerate.  He avoided the clutter which his sources could so easily have given us.  As one critic said, whilst the Kenneth Branagh film is worth watching, the book is much more terrifying.  (Not that I would ever watch the film.  That would be just too much.)I think it is worth remembering that Shackleton undertook this expedition in the hope of fame and fortune.  At what expense?I would like to know what became of all the participants in later years.

Many years ago - probably early 80s - I read the three major books about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition covered by this book. “South” was written by Shackleton, “Shackleton’s Boat Journey” by Frank Worsely (covering only the journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia and subsequent rescue of the main party) and this one “Endurance” by Alfred Lansing. It was reported that while Shackleton was regarded as the most inspirational of the polar expedition leaders he wasn’t the greatest writer but it was felt there had to be a book written by him to promote future funding. His book isn’t a work of literary genius but it gives minute details about the trip itself which I found interesting and geological / geographical friends found absolutely gripping. Alfred Lansing’s account of the same trip is an easier read and captures the emotion and drama extremely well but without the extra engagement you get from reading an account by someone who was actually there. Worsely’s book on the trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia and subsequent rescue of the team is brilliantly written and by someone who was there. While Shackleton was regarded as the inspirational leader who got every man in his team home safely it was widely recognised he couldn’t have done it without the incredible navigational skills of Frank Worsely. I think his book is the outstanding one of the trio and remains one of the best, most gripping and moving books I’ve ever read - but they are all impressive. I note in the copy of “Endurance” I got for this re-read it says a mountaineering trip repeated Shackleton’s crossing of South Georgia in 1955 and found it challenging. There was actually another expedition within the last decade and I spoke with a member of that team shortly after return to the UK who described it as still challenging with 21st century equipment and technology and inspired awe at the first crossing. So in summary, I have to admit I didn’t re-read this book in detail but skimmed bits to remind myself of how it went. A good read but if anyone hasn’t read Frank Worsely’s book I’d highly recommend it!










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