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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 or tel 01595 840888

 

 

 

 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              The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardham

24 August         The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elizabeth Gifford

28 September   Becoming by Michelle Obama

26 October        Talk by Christian Tait on writing and being published.

23 November    Secret Lives, 3 novellas by Tom Wakefield

 December:        No meeting, its Christmas.

2022

January              The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver 

 

 

 

5

 

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!

Cider with Rosie by  Laurie Lee

“Cider with Rosie” is a gem. The writing and phrasing is excellent. I found myself wishing more authors wrote like Lee. The stories and experiences that Lol tells us about take us back to an almost innocent time. He tells us of his family with his older sisters, his brothers, his missing father and, at the centre of them all, his unique and loving mother. He describes his village as a world of wonder and adventure for a small boy. We watch him develop. He is a part of church life, we go to school with him and join in the times with his play fellows. And, of course, there is Rosie and the cider. I know Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds and it has been a joy to read the descriptions of the area with its landscape, wildlife and people. I also enjoyed the pen and ink illustrations. This book will stay on my shelves and be offered to visitors (whenever) should they ask if I have a good book they can read. Many thanks to the member who recommended it to the group.

I loved this book when I read it as a teenager and it was a joy to read it again. Laurie Lee writes beautifully and with great humour and humanity, and sometimes made me laugh out loud. His family, particularly his mother, have become part of my permanent memories and I feel as if I knew her personally. The author is very aware that his generation were the last of a village community that had been the same for several hundred years, but he never idealises it. As a teenager I felt that would have liked to live there, but now I see the discomforts, chilblains and needless deaths all too clearly.

 I struggled to get going with this book until Jo pointed out that part of the attraction is that it doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere. So I started again and found this time that I enjoyed feeling the warmth of Loll’s sisters for him and how they all got along together with mother with love and ease eg settling down every evening in the kitchen with their activities and interests; no mobile phones or computer games…. Just interests and conversation or not, both fine. There is some wonderful writing as in  Mr Davies “wrap up me doings in a red silk handkerchief”. And “But if you survived melancholia and rotting lungs it was possible to live long in this valley”. And in The Parochial Church Tea this lovely passage “Smirking with misery I walked to the stage. Eileen’s face was as white as a minim. She sat at the piano, placed the music crooked, I straightened it, it fell to the ground. I groped to retrieve it; we looked at each other with hatred; the audience was still as death. Eileen tried to give me an A, but struck B instead, and I tuned up like an ape threading needles….and after playing the repeats, only twice as fast, we just stopped, frozen motionless, spent.” Wonderful writing. The description of Mother is especially poignant. Laurie describes a woman untroubled by conformity and motivated by love for her  children, her plants and her husband who she waited for for more than 30 years. A woman who didn’t organise life but lived contentedly with what there was around her, not needing to change anything. A woman with  eccentricities, collecting her bits of fine plates and ornaments as a reflection of the life she had seen and known about whilst in service but knew she would never aspire to but could nevertheless enjoy. He describes her with pure love I would say. And he describes her as able to let go at the end of her life and just be who she was. I loved the chapter about the sisters and their suitors. Poignant too the way he describes the end of the village as he knew it with all the new ways overtaking the old ones. Is it because I am an old man that I seem to know exactly how this feels? Wow. What a lucky boy to live such a child’s life. At one time  I would have given almost anything to have had such a childhood. Not now of course as, like Loll’s mother, I would like to think that  I might have sufficient wisdom to just be what I am and nothing to do about it...as to that, can only hope.

 

I am not sure if I have read this book before, bits seem familiar, but if I did it was a very long time ago. I can’t say I actually enjoyed the book, but I enjoyed the descriptions and there was some very amusing dialogue. I particularly liked the mother, somewhat chaotic, but very loving especially when she was pretty much abandoned by her husband and left to bring up not only her 3 children, but the 5 from his previous marriage, which she did with humour and love.  I haven’t quite finished the book yet, I tend to leave it until just before the meeting, otherwise I tend to forget what I have read.  This time I underestimated how long it would take me to read such a short book, but I will have done so by Tuesday!

 

Rites of Passage by William Golding

 Since having to study “Lord of the flies” at school I admit Golding is an author I have not since chosen from library shelves. Being winner of the Booker Prize one expects, and is provided with, excellent writing, phrasing, dialogue and descriptions. The characters cover many class groups that are still evident today unfortunately. “Class” is the main theme of this book. Class, attitudes, abuse and discrimination are all used by Golding to illustrate how awful we human beings can be to each other given the appropriate circumstance(s). The book, first of a trilogy, left me feeling very uncomfortable as it made me face up to unpleasantness in our world then and today. Poor Reverend Colley. Sorry but it’s not a book I will recommend to anyone although I appreciate Golding’s skill. I will not be reading the others in the series.

 This is a wonderfully complex novel ; in the closed world of a big ship far from land several power systems gradually reveal themselves and come into play.

Golding takes no prisoners.  I find him a harsh writer to read, but there is no denying his technical mastery and psychological insight. In thinking about the book its depth seems to me what makes it work.  The way in which Talbot's character is fleshed out, at first so unsympathetic in both word and action, and then several pointers so that the power of his lightbulb moment, when it comes, is credible.  The aftermath of reading Colley's letter to his sister is Talbot's appalled realisation not only of what happened but his own misjudgement, and, significantly, overwhelming pity for both Colley and his unknown sister.  This is an "I have ta'en too little care of this" moment. 

No such revelation for the young clergyman, Robert Colley.  With a horrible inevitability Colley becomes victim of a maritime society whose arcane rules he knows nothing of.  But the crew knows. The author is at pains to emphasise a makeshift crew hurriedly assembled and including some thoroughly substandard officers.  The captain's weakness - a strong dislike of clergymen - is known and exploited.  There are always those who, sensing a victim, will milk the situation.

Colleyy himself has no idea.  He exudes victim - a young man naive, unworldly, ignorant of and afraid of his normal body processes, trapped by an unrealistic assessment of his status as a clergymen - a disaster waiting to happen.  Sexual predation is always about power and gender is irrelevant, tho it is not irrelevant that in the naval Articles of War sodomy carried the death penalty, a fact of which the crew were fully aware (reading the Articles of War happened regularly on naval ships).  But it was not societal rigour, it was the deadly straitjacket of religious belief which made the implications of his encounter, bad enough as they were in any case, so overwhelming.  Talbot flinched away from the effect on the reviving Colley  - he did not "care" to imagine it.  He was quite right.  It destroyed its victim.

This book is about the use and abuse of power.  It utilises a documented incident - the man who died of shame - as centrepiece.  There are other strands suggested here, marked up but not explored further - it should be borne in mind that this is the first volume of a trilogy. The issues raised in Rites of Passage are contemporary, as noone who has been aware even in the most  vestigial fashion of *Me/Too and high profile cases of predation in court etc can doubt.  It is a hard book to read, and Golding tends to the oblique - the first time I read it I was baffled by the account of Talbot's hasty sexual encounter with Zenobia Brocklebank, once I identified Lucina as goddess of childbirth all became clear.  However in my opinion it rewards the effort

 William Golding won a Nobel Prize for Literature and this book won the Booker Prize, so I hoped to enjoy it even though I had disliked Lord of the Flies. In some ways I thought it well written, but the subject matter was to me so uninteresting  that I had to skim over some sections in order to finish it. I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters, or the main  issue of class, though  if his portrayal of the class system is true then I’m pleased by the progress we have made in the last 2 centuries.

Golding seems to have a problem with women, and the few he does mention here are charicatures. Most of his books, including Lord of the Flies, focus almost entirely on males. (According to his biography his mother was a suffragette, so perhaps he is rebelling against her.) Thank you to whoever recommended this, it has made me think!

A book written by the winner of the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature was something I was looking forward to not with any hope particularly but at least curiosity. Just as well I had no hope because I struggled to get one third of the way through and only got that far because it was the Book Club choice and I felt I should make the effort. I couldn’t  find any characters I wanted to read about, nor any event of any interest. The Talbot character I found stuffy and arrogant, yet obsequious towards his godfather. I suppose Golding was describing characteristics of real people in the English class system who he knew about but I found I didn’t want to read it. And to think that there are two more volumes of this. After I abandoned it I picked up Ann of Green Gables and enjoyed reading the work of a thoughtful writer with a keen eye for the philosophy behind everyday life and the capacity to turn in a good tale about love, companionship and relating to nature . I imagine I have completely missed the point of Rites of Passage, points I might have enjoyed but if the writer cannot hold my interest…indeed I did try again but this time could get only a quarter of the way through. Hey ho. 

 As I started to read the book it seemed familiar, which I didn’t understand as it was published far to late to be a school project nor is it the sort of book I would have bought. I then remembered that I did an English Lit evening class back in the mists of time, run by a friend of mine, and this is the sort of book Sue would have chosen.

I must admit I have only skimmed the book, as I wasn’t enjoying it.  I thought the writing was good and the atmosphere he created was cleverly done and I am sure reflected the attitudes of the time but I found it difficult to read and sympathise with the characters. It makes you grateful that attitudes have moved on.

  

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

 Irene recommended Kate Atkinson to me ages ago and I read “One good turn”. It did not impress me very much so my expectations for this book were pretty low. However I found it fascinating and very readable. Ursula’s family and friends are funny, intelligent, demanding, problematic and very real. The use of different times and Ursula’s déjà vu sense is clever and keeps the pages turning. The book is lauded for its descriptions of the blitz and I am just a smidge too young to be able to confirm if it was as described but I have seen enough news casts to realise we shall never know how awful it really was. My eyebrow raised itself at the comment on the front cover from Hilary Mantel i.e. “ A box of delights”.

Oh-oh I thought but it turns out she has a point.

For quite a while, as I read this book, I couldn’t decide whether I was enjoying it. It took me some time to understand where Kate Atkinson was headed, but by the end I felt it was, if not the ‘best book of the century’, definitely the second best book I have read this year! Kate Atkinson is certainly a very talented writer, though I got a clearer idea of the women than of the men in the book. It was moving to follow Ursula’s gradual understanding of her situation, and how she came to terms with her fears - with the help of the mysterious psychiatrist - until she could control her lives enough to choose to prevent a war by shooting Hitler. Recommended.

What seems like a very long time ago we all discussed books we’d read recently and this was one I’d just finished (so I guess it must have been last summer). I do remember saying how much I’d enjoyed it but hadn’t remembered actually recommending it as a book club read - but delighted to find it was. Since it’s now a year since I read it and I didn’t have time to read it again many of the details have dropped from my mind.... However I do remember I enjoyed it very much. I think Kate Atkinson is a very talented writer so it’s a beautifully crafted book. Lots of writers have written variations on the concept of different versions of the same life, often changing according to the subject making a different choice. That isn’t the case here - Ursula obviously had no control over her first incarnation ending in stillbirth! Kate Atkinson beautifully creates the atmosphere, social mores, and lifestyle of the time for a moderately affluent family. Things do on the whole improve with each incarnation (her grim life following the rape and abortion is avoided when she avoids the rape) but it’s not that straightforward. Overall I had no difficulty in suspending belief and going with the flow - and in a way it was comforting to know that when things were going pear shaped Ursula might get another shot at things! And I was glad it finally ended on a lovely reversal of an accepted sad outcome with the safe return of her brother, presumed dead but finally home from a POW camp. Much could be written about the structure of the book and its plots but sadly I don’t have time for a more lengthy discussion - but I definitely loved it!

 We read one of her books in Book Group a few years ago. I really enjoyed it and bought several more of her books, including this one and was looking forward to-re reading it. Leaving it to the last minute as I do, I planned to refresh my memory over the weekend, only to find that I no longer have my copy. I must have lent it out and never got it back by which point it was to late to do anything about it.So, from memory, I like her writing style and thought her plots were very well crafted and you actually cared about her main characters, who were honest and believable which is so important.  So much of life seems to be random, so what would have happened if I turned left instead of right is very tempting to writers, there are a lot in Science fiction, but this one really worked.  I’m pleased she killed Hitler at one point, and from memory I enjoyed the ending. I have been online and ordered another copy as I was disappointed not to be able to re-read.  I will also check what other books she has written over the last couple of years.

Mostly I enjoyed reading this book although I wasn’t able to finish it. I enjoyed the characters in the family all with their attitudes and differences well described and I felt that Kate Atkinson understands her characters. I enjoyed the black humour and the openness and honesty of what goes on in their minds. The descriptions of the goings on in war were graphic and felt real to me, such as the hidden relationship with Crighton, the bomb blast in Argyle Road. Interesting that she could do that being a post war baby.  Also the naivety of the germans in the early days of Nazi Germany. Could that happen here, I wonder, as government moves relentlessly towards the right and would we, the people, be able to see it for what it is and stop it in time? I am trying to work out why I haven’t finished it. I wanted to but maybe the switching forwards and backwards in time and the alternative narratives were a bit confusing for this old man and it wasn’t helped by my dipping in and out of it. Probably I would have done better if I had sat down and read it through without much of a break. 

 I have mixed feelings about "Life after Life".  I only "sort of" enjoyed the book though I did want to finish it and it was by no means a disaster.  It's only a couple of weeks since I read it but I've lost the detail of it already.  My overriding memory is annoyance at the jumping around and having to work out where we  were.  Confusing!  One version of Ursula's life would have been sufficient for me.  The scenes from the blitz were more graphic and probably more true than many a glorified and romantic account. 

I won't be reading this one again and I doubt I'll read the follow-up, "A God in Ruins"!

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

  

Difficult to know how to summarise my feelings about this book partly because I may be reluctant to admit that Rostov, who came from a privileged and moneyed background could be so sensible, charming and so easy to make friends with. He appealed to me as a man who had grown up privileged but who was able to adapt to changed circumstances after the revolution whilst retaining his independent outlook and beliefs and thus could survive and feel good about himself and because he could do this, he was able to be happy. I think this capacity is a profoundly necessary skill in order to have a happy life.  Presumably it was because of these assets and the connections that he had made that he was allowed to stay in the Metropole and not be executed or sent off to Siberia. That aspect felt a little far fetched to me but could instead I suppose be a thoughtful reflection on one or two of the revolutionary leaders  who might have dared to act contrarily and to follow their own human instincts to allow it. At the outset I wondered how I could be engaged to read 450 pages about a man under permanent house arrest but I found Towles adept at incorporating all manner of tales, humour, humanity, commentary, psychology, philosophy, not to mention an engaging writing style  and clever little plots, often unexpected, as at the end of the book when I was sure his plan was to escape to Paris so he could hear Sofia play. Being a person myself who has never really been able to conform to much, I enjoyed reading about the unconforming triumvirate and Anna. I liked that he could relate so easily to Nina, not as a pseudo parent but as an equal, the best way to relate to a much younger person, in my view. I believed his descriptions of life post revolution and enjoyed his responses to the idiocy of the people who governed or were put in charge of this and that because of their connections with the leadership and noted that there is not much change, in my view, in that regard from Russian government  post revolution and UK government currently albeit at the opposite political spectrum. I enjoyed the way he weaved his stories around real revolutionary characters and I found the book an apt read after Manop and I have just finished watching The Last Tsars on Netflix. Thank you Claire and Mary for suggesting this one.

 I loved this book and will not hesitate in recommending it to anyone and everyone! Thank you to the member who offered it to the group as a reading experience. The Count is just wonderful, kind, elegant, funny and wise. Nina is perfect example of a young girl growing, with guidance from all she meets in her unique community, into a true heroine. There is a gentleness weaving its way through the book which adds to the charm which in turn captures the reader. For me it has been a true joy to be involved with this story. Thank you again.

  I enjoyed this book very much.  It was the perfect book at bedtime for me, I looked forward to my nightly routine.  One of the things I liked best was the author’s understated writing style - many writers metaphorically hit you over the head with something heavy - his wit, and the way he quietly handles the real tragedies inflicted on people during the Stalin era.  Lots to enjoy and reflect upon.Many thanks to whoever suggested this.  I shall reread this, and find his other works.

 It took me a long time to finish this book but I finally made it. Though the length of the book maybe reflects the length of the count’s stay in the hotel, I do feel that it would have benefited by  being cut by a third.

  In true comic novel fashion, the count is  an unrealistically warm and witty character, without any flaws, and Sofia also is too good to be true. It was an intriguing plot and I admired the skill of the author,  but I didn’t feel involved in the characters at all. I hope it was a realistic view of Moscow, it made me want to know more about the city, so despite my quibbles, for me it was a good read.

 I was aware of this book and was planning to read it before it became a book group choice. I did however wonder how engaging it might be given it centres on a man confined to a hotel! I shouldn’t have worried. What a lovely read - the atmosphere, characters, plot - everything- was wonderful. I so enjoyed reading it - looked forward to the time I could get back to it and loved everything about it. Having worked in Russia over the past 30 years it seemed authentic and convincing  - I could identify many of the characters….. and impressive to know it was written recently by an American! I’d have read it anyway but thanks to whoever suggested it for taking it to the top of my “to read” list.

 

 The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

I enjoyed this book mostly. I found it easy to read and her commentary through her characters is entertaining and amusing, sometimes a little black , which I liked. Maybe the observations and lack of any clarity  about why Elizabeth decided to marry Edward in the first place were symptomatic of the way some marriages are decided upon. Perhaps a modern Elizabeth might have ditched him on the night before the wedding and gone for Veneering if he would have had her. But it is well handled as I was only slowly aware that the fling, as I thought of it, went deeper. I found the book floundered around for quite a while going nowhere really but in an amusing enough way but the end is the best part for me, when quite a few surprising  things happen just in the last few chapters such as when Harry wheedles money out of her and then steps into his Porsche, when we are told that Edward had been equally unfaithful after the engagement and knew all about the friendship with Sylvia, such as how the male protagonists eventually reconcile but do not lose their competitiveness or egocentricity. I am pleased to have read it. Probably I won’t read the other books.

 

 I liked this book. There are really interesting characters which hook the reader. The question for me was, and still is I think, is Ross a guardian angel or a harbinger of doom? He certainly has control over things affecting Elisabeth and Filth, especially Filth. Did anyone else think “Oh, no” when Elisabeth agreed to go to Harry  for Veneering putting her own important and scheduled surgery at risk of delay? Would I have done the same? Who knows. Love is powerful and although dedicated to her husband Elisabeth remains loyal to the love she experienced with the man she met and who bedded her just before her marriage to Edward. So she acts accordingly when he calls her to go to his son. And, of course, Ross is aware, watching and taking care of things. I liked the way we are told the end before the beginning, it was good for me to  know that Edward and Elisabeth were together at the end of her life. I particularly liked the details of the homes, gardens and countries they shared together. This is a book I shall read again and it is already in the spare room waiting for visitors to consider (whenever they descend on us that is!) Thank you to the member who recommended TMITWH.

 

 I didn’t know what to expect with this book. I didn’t embark on it expecting to particularly like it but didn’t expect to particularly dislike it either. I was a bit concerned to learn it was the last book in a trilogy and wondered if that might make it less enjoyable but the three books aren’t in strictly chronological order so it was clear from the outset that that didn’t really matter.


I really enjoyed this book - thank you to whoever suggested it. I’ve had limited experience of visiting colonised countries while still colonised (and specifically I’ve never been to Hong Kong) but I thought the author did an excellent job in creating a setting that seemed entirely credible and fascinating. I thought the characters were also believable and interesting. I was concerned that having met Terry Veneering just after she’d accepted Feathers’s proposal the book might be a long story of regret but in fact she was clearly also very fond of Feathers so their non ecstatic marriage was nevertheless ok in its way and again the story of it was beautifully created and believable.

I found it interesting that Betty had worked at Bletchley since our mother was also there (a fact we only learned in adulthood when the secrecy obligation was lifted) but there were very few details to compare - but it again seemed entirely in keeping with the character. I think the author did an excellent job in creating interesting credible characters with so much going on under the surface - well observed recognition that everyone has an inner life that in many cases might be very different from the public personna.

When I finished the book I did consider going on to read the other two in the trilogy. On reflection however I think this was likely to have been the best of the three and reading the others might spoil the memory of this one but who knows?

 I read this shortly after the last meeting.  I was surprised at how I had forgotten it.  I had to read up about the plot and the characters today.  

 I think that tells its own story.  I did enjoy it at the time but it has not left an indelible stamp on me.  I won't be reading it again but I may try something else by Jane Gardam, though not from this trilogy.

 The wooden hat?  I waited all that way through the story for something of great significance that turned out to be an anti-climax when it came.

 I read this quickly and enjoyed it but after a week I couldn’t remember it at all, so had to reread it again to make notes. So I don’t feel that it’s a great book by any means, but an interesting study of a type of people who I don’t think would exist today.

Both Edward and Catherine have been permanently damaged by their childhoods, but are warm and interesting in their own ways. Whereas Veneering and his son are  not recognisable as real people, so I didn’t mind what happened to them. But a good study of different kinds of love.

The book spanned the successful 50-year marriage of high-flying lawyer

Edward Feathers, also known as Filth, (failed in London, try Hong Kong) to Betty, and was told from her point of view.
It started with Edward, in old age, surveying the Dorset countryside to which the couple had retired after spending most of their lives in
the bustling and colourful setting of Hong Kong. And near the end of the book he was again pictured in Dorset as the story came full
circle.
The mysterious Chinese dwarf Albert Ross appeared, disappeared and reappeared throughout the book - like an albatross, possibly - and in
spite of his limited presence he was probably key to the whole tale.  This book was a most enjoyable read although it left me with some
unanswered questions.
Did Ross tell Edward about Betty's guilty secret? Was it possible that he, Edward, knew all along but chose to ignore it? Did he really not
notice Betty was wearing another man's pearls? Is this why he was so happy to give them away? Why did Ross keep Edward's watch hidden?
The wooden hat incident played such a minor part of the book so why did it become the title?
This is an intriguing book which paints a vivid picture of Hong Kong and the life of ex-pats who never really settle back in the UK. It
also depicts some universal themes. Edward never fully understood  Betty's lifelong sorrow at being childless. The miscarriage happened
fifty years ago, but it was not forgotten. Do people ever really "get over" things? Does the passage of time heal or do past emotions haunt
us?
A great read, thank you for introducing me to the author Jane Gardam.

  

 The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

 

Several years ago Manop and I spent a summer on Harris and towards the end of our stay we arranged to go to St Kilda but on the day the seas were too rough and the trip was cancelled and not repeated because it was too late in the season and the weather had changed. Reading this book makes me feel sad that I never managed to get there. More recently M and I have visited Foula, where the 1937 film about the exodus from St Kilda was filmed. It felt familiar in relation to Elisabeth Gifford’s descriptions which show vividly the way life on the island may have been. In some ways her description could indeed almost be of Shetland at that time, a land also on the edge. Even now, I seem to sense the truth of the writing from my own experience of living here on Whalsay. Her developing descriptions of Chrissie’s slowly changing feelings in the physical presence of Fred also feel real, so real that I felt I could almost smell him and I felt honoured and my senses heightened to be included in such intimacy; Elizabeth Gifford, it seems to me,  really does know what a loving man feels like. Sadly for me her descriptions of how Fred felt about Chrissie did not match and I felt she did not fully get how it might be to love a woman and I wasn’t really convinced by his love. She writes convincingly however about the unlikeliness of the relationship between the two on account of the vast differences in their backgrounds. I know about this from my own experience and I know how love can be a gentle salve of great difference so I was ready to read about that. The appalling betrayal of  Fred by Archie was convincing I thought and highlighted very well the sometimes fragility of love in its early stages. Elizabeth Gifford also describes well, it seems to me, the closeness and interdependence of the village relationships. It feels familiar to me as if a similar experience here in Shetland lingers on. The description of the declining life on the island and the final departure of the residents is heartbreaking. Elizabeth lists “The truth about St Kilda” in her references and in that account the accident on the cliffs  takes place in 1916 and is a little bit different when Ewen Gillies went over the cliff secured by John MacDonald. John however failed to secure the rope around a peg as was normal practice and so when Ewen slipped, being the heavier man, he pulled John with him to his death. I couldn’t see Archie as a true friend, as described by Fred in the final sentence. However Fred is Elizabeth’s character, not mine. At the end I still saw Archie as the original narcissistic  little sod who was later able, somewhat,  to alleviate his treachery. If there had been a chapter devoted to him showing why he had changed I might feel a bit more kindly. A good read I thought and thank you Gundel for suggesting it. 

What a lovely book. The descriptions of the island, the islanders and their way of life are excellent. So much so that I walked the hills, swam in the sea and struggled to survive with Chrissie and her family. The author’s use of language in her telling of the tale was spell-binding. Whilst reading the book I had images from the 1937 film “The edge of the world” when the islanders portrayed , like these St Kildans, had to rely on brief written messages secured in tiny wooden craft cast adrift in the hope they would reach help for the islands. In actuality the way the government reacted to the real islanders’ pleas for assistance was ruthless and hurried the eventual evacuation. Fred’s story was also well described and the fear and traumas he encountered pervaded the pages as he struggled to reach home and Chrissie. Archie, the villain of the piece, redeemed himself in the latter part of the book which sat well with me. When I began reading the book I thought “Oh, not another story about an archaeological dig” but I soon became enthralled in the ways of the islanders and the “dig” actually took a side role albeit an important one. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will keep it by me.

This is a charming book, easy to read and with an interesting narrative.

It stretches over more that a decade and is in two contrasting settings - the peace of St Kilda and the brutality of wartorn Europe.

The descriptions of St Kilda are beautiful and evoke the wildness of the island and the hardship of the life there accurately. The sense of community is powerful, the opposite of the descriptions of wartime when it was difficult to know who to trust.  

Then there is the love story. Chrissie's feelings, first for Archie and then for Fred, are convincingly written, as are Fred's. Fred's decision to leave is believable, especially as a the tale takes on a darker side with Archie's lie.

 However, Archie redeems himself at the end of the book and the ending is satisfying.

 The book is mainly written as reminiscences of the main characters, an effective way of revealing their feelings. I do have slight reservations about the chance meeting of Fred and Archie, but it makes a good story.

 I found it a hard book to read, I think because I found it a little slow and some of the descriptions could have been edited somewhat.

 Given that I thought it was a well written book, clearly well researched and the simplicity of the writing made it easy to follow and gave such a good understanding of the people and their way of life.  I think living in Shetland and knowing its history, it is easy to understand the hardships they faced and their determination to stay on their island as long as they could.   Fred’s journey to freedom was realistic and one can only admire the courage and strength of the escapees and their helpers given they knew the consequences of being caught.

I was really looking forward to reading this book.  A book about St. Kilda!  An island and a history that has always fascinated me.  Our second best favourite place in all the world is the Lochaline area.  We almost ended up there instead of Shetland but the house fell through.  We know those houses in Larachbeg and St. Kildans from a tree-less home were indeed sent to work in the forestry on Morvern.  I was hoping to learn more about this magical place and its tragic story.

Then I began the book and, to my horror, we were in the middle of World War 11.  "Oh no!  Not another war book."  I could have left it then but it's a book group matter so I'd better persevere a while longer.  I'm so glad I did.

I liked it.  I couldn't put it down.  I enjoyed the story even if it was somewhat far-fetched at times with a predictable ending.  It was the account of life on the stricken archipelago  in those last years and the portrayal of the St. Kildans that really caught me.  Life on Morvern and the trials and tribulations of the war became equally fascinating.

The simplicity of the writing made such graphic pictures.  We ran on that beach and over that hillside.  We peered over the dramatic clifftop.  We walked every step of that journey through France and over the Pyrenees.  What about the under-stated demise of the dogs?  I have to say, I wept when Callum left.  I followed the smells of the island and the sounds.  As I was reading it, the innumerable sea birds of Shetland were wheeling around our voe.

Will I read it again?  It is a possibility, in time.  That's a thing I rarely do.  I will try other writings by Elizabeth Gifford and hope I am not expecting too much from her.  I have recommended The Lost Lights of St Kilda to sympathetic friends, already.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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