Every Man for Himself by Beryl Brainbridge

A very moving account of the privileged few aboard the doomed first and only voyage of Titanic – the unsinkable ship. It was written through the eyes of an orphaned-turned-rich upper class man in his early twenties. The group were split on this book. To some it was boring. Other were left curious about some of the details of the Titanic. The characters were not compelling. The last few pages have you drawn into the despair, and for some that were still convinced the ship wouldn’t sink and just carried on.

Have a read and see what you think!

Pam Owens

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

TheWater Babies was published in 1863, a fairy-tale dedicated to Charles Kingsley’s youngest child Grenville, and became his most widely read book (apart from ‘Westward Ho!’ which I had not realised he had written!)

I suggested reading this book as I had very fond memories of reading this when I was a mere child of 10/11. My brother used to buy me books for every birthday and Christmas, green leather bound volumes, and I have them still. On re-reading, I was amazed that I had remembered so much and at the same time so little. I did not remember the lists of adjectives, those now meaningless references to old controversies, the personal prejudices etc. which I must admit I skipped through without reading in their entirety. What I did remember was the magical bare bones of the story, and the characters of Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, Grimes, and of course Tom and Ellie. Some of the group who had read the book in their youth, said they thought they must have read a childrens edition, and very much enjoyed it, but did not enjoy the original text. Others started to read, but were put off by the language and did not finish it.

Some of the descriptive passages in the book, particularly about the countryside, are wonderful ‘clear and cool, clear and cool’, ‘Mother Carey’s Haven, where the good whales go when they die’, and the names too, ‘Peacepool’ ‘Shiny Wall’ and lots of other examples ‘those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be’.

I think you might gather that I still think this is a great book, and well worth reading, (having the choice of what to leave out) although very much a product of its Victorian past and very moralistic (Charles Kingsley was after all, a minister!). Although very much in the minority in the group, I would encourage others to read or reread if only for the wonderfully descriptive passages, especially of the river, and forgive the platitudes and dogmas, and just enjoy the fairy story.

Chris Fisher

The White Tiger

This book was the Reader’s Group choice for their Book of the Month in January.

First published in 2008 and winning the 40th Man Booker Prize in the same year. It was a debut novel by Indian author Aravind Adiga.

The novel gives a humorous, although dark side, sight into the Indian class struggle in these times. Balram Halwai tells of his wish to escape his “birth” village to improve his lot in life. He escapes from his family’s expectations by journeying to Delhi. He works for a rich master as his chauffeur learning much about the underworld.

He then flees to Bangalore after killing his master and stealing his money!

The novel explores the Indian issues of religion, caste, loyalty, corruption and poverty.

Balram eventually achieves his ambitions to leave his sweet making caste and becomes a successful entrepreneur establishing his own taxi service.

The novel catches the atmosphere of India, the impoverished areas and the spirit of the diverse classes and castes. It’s a revealing and educational book and is, in turns, amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing and utterly contemporary.

It was loved by most of the group, but not all of them.

Janet Penn

Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri

The group’s choice in April was the Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri. We each chose which story we wanted to read and the group was split, with some really enjoying them and some not at all. Inspector Montalbano is a quirky, very Sicilian detective with a unique way of attacking each mystery using intuition, knowledge of local people and good old fashioned police work in equal measure. Montalbano is a gourmet when it comes to his food and he insists on eating in silence, to get the full enjoyment, yet another quirk! The plots are rather complicated but offset by beautifully descriptive passages of Sicily which made most of us want to jump on a plane and go there right away! I for one shall be reading more of these mysteries.

Wendy Crownshaw

The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen by Prudence Leith-Ross

This book was recommended by one of the Readers‟ Group members who was unable to attend at the beginning of the meeting. Most of those there had obtained a copy but nobody had actually read the book as it was found to be more of a reference book than a reading book and the lists of plants with their prices and their origins had not been particularly interesting. One member had got as far as the first 72 pages and another, the undersigned, had skimmed through the historical parts but not the botanical sections, thus drawing the short straw for this report.
The John Tradescants, father and son, were both plant and artefact collectors and gardeners and I found the descriptions of the people for whom they worked and the houses and gardens in which their patrons lived very interesting. The elder John Tradescant was employed by the King, James the First, the Duke of Buckingham and others to design and plant their gardens and there was interesting information about the doings of the Court and the aristocracy of the time as well as descriptions of John Tradescants‟ travels to find and purchase the required plants.
There were also descriptions and catalogues of his and his son‟s collection of artefacts, many of which are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. However, it did seem more of a reference book and not an easy read. When the reader who had recommended it finally turned up she expressed surprise that nobody liked it and said she had read it, admittedly a long time ago, but she had found it an enjoyable novel! When she looked at the book she found that she had recommended the wrong one as she had not read that one. After a little research she found the title of
the one she had meant to recommend which was “Earthly Joys” by Philippa Gregory, also about the John Tradescants but much more readable! As nobody had read the one she had mistakenly recommended there was not very much discussion about it. However other talk flowed freely over the tea and cakes which were very much appreciated.

Jane Yardley

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: Published by Bloomsbury.

This book was chosen as it was the winner of the Man Booker prize and so we, as a group,hoped for great things. It has three central characters.

Julian Treslove, aged 49, a melancholy former BBC arts producer, whose career is in decline. He is a veteran of failed relationships and a man whose chameleon-like qualities have brought him employment as a celebrity lookalike. He has two sons by two former partners neither of which he has much contact with and is obsessed with feelings of isolation. He comes over as a shallow man who is always worrying at something but he is never very focussed about what that something is.

The other main characters are his two oldest friends, Sam Finkler, a former schoolmate, and Libor Sevcik, their former teacher. Finkler is a successful, popular philosopher and broadcaster, and Libor, a former showbiz journalist. Both are intellectuals, both have been recently widowed and both are Jews. Libor is a Czech who remains besotted with the memory of his wife Malkie, a famous pianist who died at the age of 80. Finkler, has also lost his young wife, Tyler to cancer and masks this loss by putting on a brusque show of confident arrogance.

At the beginning of the book Treslove is mugged by a woman and is thrown into a spin of retrospective self doubt as he struggles to make sense of why this has happened. She takes his watch and wallet, and screams something indecipherable, which Treslove eventually deciphers, Woody Allen-like, as “You Jew!” The puzzling of these words mark the tone and subject matter of the work as this is essentially a book about Jewishness but it is a subject that wriggles and writhes and resists definition as Treslove acts out his own, ‘to be a Jew or not to be a Jew’ drama. This conundrum is fired by his long-simmering envy of his Jewish friends and awakens a determination to know and become all that is Jewish.

The reviews of this book boast witty writing and comic prose and it was the humour that we looked forward to but sadly did not easily find. It seemed to be a book that was always shouting, “I am funny” but none of us seemed to get the joke. The characters were hard to relate to and many of us found the book hard to finish. The representation of Jews and Jewishness were pushed toward caricatures that were hard to reconcile with our own experiences and the persistent focus seemed simply to be a long and sometimes self-indulgent examination by the characters of the nature and obligations of being Jewish.

This book was hailed as a masterpiece by many National and International newspapers but if so, we failed to find the kernel of genius in this nut.

Tina Cole

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold Fry, recently retired, lives in Kingsbridge, a small English village, with his wife, Maureen, who seems to be irritated by almost everything he does, even how he butters his toast. Each day in their lives is much the same.

One morning the post arrives. There is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl, from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, who is in a hospice in Berwick-upon- Tweed. She is writing to say goodbye.

Harold quickly writes a reply and heads for the post box, leaving Maureen to her chores. He then has a huge desire to deliver the letter in person and so begins his unlikely pilgrimage. He is determined to walk the six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon- Tweed, because he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his journey, meeting many fascinating characters along the way. The Pilgrimage gives Harold plenty of thinking time and memories of his life come rushing back to him. Maureen, at home, misses Harold for the first time in years and she also finds herself reflecting on their memories………………………………………..

A thoroughly enjoyable and easy read, with very interesting characters, all having their own problems and emotions to deal with. A novel with “charm, humour and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts”…………………….(from the publisher)

The Humans by Matt Haig

Humans, as seen by an alien race, are strange creatures. We look strange, we behave strangely and we have complicated, emotional reactions. We are most certainly not to be trusted with knowledge beyond our capabilities. So when Professor Andrew Martin solves a major mathematical problem, the aliens are forced to send one of their own to Earth to destroy the evidence – a simple task for a superior race. But when this visitor inhabits the body of Professor Martin, he finds himself learning more about humans than he had expected and questions his own beliefs.

This is a gently humorous take on a Science Fiction novel which sheds light on what it is to be human. The group’s opinions were divided. We all agreed that humour is very individual and this novel did not appeal to everyone coupled with the fact that we have few science fiction fans. However, we all agreed that it was well written and some of the concepts were interesting but these could have been developed more fully. Others found it to be a funny, compulsively readable novel.

Pat Mutton

Summer Lies by Bernard Schlink

Many of the seven short stories in ‘Summer Lies’ are focused on middle-aged men who love their routines and careers and are hesitant about the women who threaten to take them out of their comfort zone.

In ‘After the Season’ we find Richard and Susan involved in a holiday romance which becomes complicated once Richard tries to picture Susan as part of his normal life, a change which may not be welcome. Another story in the collection sees the main character, consumed by a need to preserve his idea of idyllic family life to extremes which border on madness. A philosophy professor declines to tell his wife and family that he is dying of cancer. He feels he has planned his last days, surrounded by family and friends but he is unable to control their reactions once his secret is revealed. A father and son attempt to reconnect on a trip to a music festival and although both experience moving moments, these are not shared. The only story told from a female point of view sees a much loved grandmother frustrated and puzzled about choices she has made in her life. A reunion organised by her granddaughter forces her to see the past in a different light.

Each story in ‘Summer Lies’ sees Schlink’s characters grow and change even if they are unsure of what it is they would truly like to do. They seek change but also wish to cling on to what they know and love. These stories are broodingly atmospheric, capturing fleeting emotions. His characters are not always likeable but they are always interesting which provided ample material for a lively discussion within the group. Beautifully written in a direct, unsentimental manner- I’ve already ordered ‘The Reader’.

Pat Mutton

Man on Fire by Stephen Kelman

This month’s book proved to be a difficult read and was not to everyone’s taste.

John Lock has come to India to meet his destiny: a destiny dressed in a white karate suit and sporting an impressive moustache. He has fled the quiet desperation of his life in England: decades wasted in a meaningless job, a marriage foundering in the wake of loss and a terrible secret he cannot bear to share with his wife.

He has come to offer his help to a man who has learned to conquer pain, a world record breaker who specialises in feats of extreme endurance and ill-advised masochism. Bibhuti Nayak is the sort of exuberant semi-mystic who might beggar belief if his extraordinary accomplishments weren’t inspired by actual events. His next record attempt – to have fifty baseball bats broken over his body – will set the seal on a career that has seen him rise from poverty to become a minor celebrity in a nation where standing out from the crowd requires tenacity, courage and perhaps a touch of madness. In answering Bibhuti’s call for assistance, John hopes to rewrite a brave end to a life poorly lived.

But as they take their leap of faith together, and John is welcomed into Bibhuti’s family, and into the colour and chaos of Mumbai – where he encounters ping-pong- playing monks, a fearless seven-year- old martial arts warrior and an old man longing for the monsoon to wash him away – he learns more about life, and death, and everything in between than he could ever have bargained for.

The contrasting voices and backgrounds of John and Bibhuti can be clearly heard in alternating chapters and the story also moves from present to past so the early chapters need a degree of focused attention but the story that develops if full of colour and surprise – a story of faith, forgiveness and second chances.

Pat Mutton