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

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

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

Freeing My Sisters by Wilma Hayes

We were very pleased to welcome Wilma to our meeting this month where she talked about her first novel and gave us an insight into the writing and publishing of books. She used her own home on the Shropshire-Herefordshire border as her inspiration and local readers will enjoy visiting some local sites with her characters.

The novel takes bullying as its theme – bullying at work, in relationships and in the past. A crime from the distant past makes itself known to Mary Mitchell and she and her neighbour, Tim embark on a voyage of discovery to free the sisters from injustice. They also discover much about themselves and face up to modern day bullying.

Pat Mutton

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

Ten-year- old Judith lives a life of prayer, preaching and bible readings with her father, a man so absorbed in his relationship with God that he forgets to build one with his daughter. McCleen grew up in a similarly fundamentalist environment and the authenticity of the experience is part of what makes this book, and it’s astonishing young heroine, so memorable.

Painfully lonely and a helpless outsider, ten year old Judith finds herself bullied at school and escapes to the Land of Decoration, the miniature ‘Promised Land’ she has built in her bedroom. One night, consumed with fear she prays for snow to fall and close the school. When she wakes the next morning to find the town covered in the real thing, it can only mean one thing: she can perform miracles.

The consequences of this and other ‘miracles’ along with conversations with a vengeful God compelled our group to continue reading through this thoughtful and complex novel. McCleen has a vivid way with words which creates an often grim and claustrophobic atmosphere, not always easy to read but nobody could put it down!

Pat Mutton

Needful Things by Stephen King

With potent storytelling, King paints a surreal picture of small town America in the eighties. He felt that this was a decade when everything came with a price tag with the final items being honour, integrity, self-respect and innocence and he turned this concept into a small-town curio shop.

Leland Gaunt opens a new shop in Castle Rock called Needful Things. Anyone who enters his store finds the object of his or her lifelong dreams and desires: a prized baseball card, a healing amulet. In addition to a token payment, Gaunt requests that each person perform a little ‘deed’. Usually a seemingly innocent prank played on someone else from town. These practical jokes cascade out of control and soon the entire town is doing battle with itself. Only Sherriff Alan Pangborn suspects that Gaunt is behind the population’s increasingly violent behaviour.

If you’ve never read a horror novel before, you’d find yourself gently drawn into the mystery of this little shop and its strange proprietor who seems to be able to look deep into the soul of each customer and uncover their secret desires. But this is not for the faint hearted. There is an explosive sting in the tail. Love him or hate him – and we were decidedly split – his storytelling skills are undeniable.

My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards is a contemporary Welsh poet and this, his award winning collection of poems, is a moving portrayal of his family and experience. His work moves from wit to melancholy, capturing the life of these Welsh valley communities. What comes through strongly is the warmth and affection he feels towards his family.

Section one records the myths and legends of an everyday family with section two focusing on the harsher social and physical environment of a changing Wales. In section three he explores the world of adult relationships with love injecting another dimension to the collection. The final section includes a sequence of animal poems and new people.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this collection and we all felt that the selected poems truly came alive when read aloud.

Pat Mutton