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

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This Victorian work of mystery and suspense was greatly enjoyed by our local group of readers. The story opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. He has been engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and finds himself drawn into the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco. The plot is crammed with intrigue and full of memorable characters. Suspense is used as a basic element and the story twists and turns with dastardly deeds and shameful secrets, love and dishonour – a genuine thriller.

The American Lover and other stories by Rose Tremain

The heroine of the title story can’t free herself from the overpowering influence of her American lover, even after he casually abandons her, and leaves her to cope with an abortion on her own. Similarly, the main character in the subsequent story, Captive, finds himself an exile in his own kingdom, alone in a bungalow on the farm where he grew up. While another shorter piece, about an elderly widower who struggles to keep a neglected piece of lane clear of litter, has a similar sadness and The Jester of Astapovo dramatises the chaos of Leo Tolstoy’s final hours, when he took flight from his wife, the formidable Countess Sophie, and ended up at a train station in a remote corner of Russia.

Walter and Lena Parker find it all too much when their grown-up daughter returns to their Nashville home with rowdy musicians and dodgy lovers in tow. They move permanently into their lakeside holiday cabin to find some peace, and try to kid themselves that they are happy there. In The Housekeeper, a young woman is horrified to discover, after a brief sexual encounter with Daphne du Maurier, that she is the model for Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. We feel for the betrayal of Danni, as we feel for all of the characters in this powerful collection.

Rose Tremain has always been drawn to outsiders in her fiction. Her characters in this wide-ranging selection of short stories are often loners whose isolation is emotional rather than physical; trapped by memory, desire, or loyalty in situations they can no longer control.

Pat Mutton

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

In the summer of 2010, Simon Armitage, writer and poet, decided to walk the gruelling 256mile Pennine Way the ‘wrong’ way, north to south, towards his home village of Marsden. As a Yorkshire man of ‘average fitness, poor map reading ability, a lower back problem and small lungs’ this proves to be an entertaining challenge.

Celebrity as a poet means that volunteers organise poetry readings and a bed each night for this modern day troubadour. The ‘Tombstone’, a suitcase of deadweight slim volumes of poetry, transported by car between venues mystically gains weight as he trudges southward. There is little here of the romantic solitariness of walking and time for self-discovery, as he is accompanied by well wishers, family and friends on various sections of the walk, each with their own story to tell. At night, he meticulously lists his takings, collected in a walking sock from readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms.

The description of his journey moves between serious descriptions of beautiful and bleak terrain, across lonely fells and into the howling wind, to the fate of countless Mars Bars! This is not a traditional travel book but more a uniquely charming, droll British account of one man’s journey through a landscape which affects him both physically and emotionally.

Pat Mutton

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

In this legendary novel that appears to predict the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Graham Greene introduces James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman whose life is transformed when he is asked to join the British Secret Service."Our Man In Havana” is a satirical tale of espionage and intrigue. Wormold is out of his league in the world of cloak and dagger missions, sensitive information gathering, and covert operations. He is a middle-aged father of a 17 year-old beauty named Milly, running a small vacuum cleaner business in Havana with an assistant named Lopez. The British Secret Service has completely misjudged who he is. Unwilling to disappoint them or to give up the monthly salary and expenses, he fabricates coded reports and lists fictitious operatives and informants. Things get really complicated when the home office in London is impressed with his efforts and sends him a secretary and a radio operator.

This often light-hearted, atmospheric ‘entertainment’ was enjoyed by most of the group who felt encouraged to read more of this massively important author whose comments on present-day life still resonate despite being published over 50 years ago.

Pat Mutton

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

It’s Christmas morning, a blizzard rages outside trapping Holly and her fifteen year old adopted daughter Tatiana, in the house, while other family members and friends struggle to reach them to share the planned celebrations. But the problems within the house are far more sinister. To say this book is haunting doesn’t quite capture its insidious power. Holly’s state of mind is brought into question and this combined with the claustrophobic atmosphere created by the storm builds tension, frustration and often confusion. Where is this going? Most of us had no idea until the very end … and what an ending! All the pieces of the jig-saw fall into place. Hidden clues and signs become obvious. Don’t be put off by the initial repetition – ‘something has followed us home from Russia’ as it adds to the sinister tone of the book. If you enjoy psychological thrillers, this is for you.

Pat Mutton