Reading Groups Reviews – beware plots!

A Captain's DutyHempnall Book Club ‘A Captain’s Duty’ by Richard Phillips  

This book was a recommendation although we were all aware of the subsequent film “Captain Phillips”, starring Tom Hanks, which had been recently well received.

The book’s cover is a mainly greyscale picture of Tom Hanks looking pensive, and a pirate scaling the side of a ship, so derived from the film. There are two other covers, prior to the film, which are much less dramatic and not really eye-catching. The Tom Hanks cover didn’t appeal to our female members, piracy and bad male behaviour not attracting them, and was partially attractive to the men, mainly because of the film.

Nevertheless, the reading of the book was enjoyed by all. It turned out to be an interesting mixture of an adventure story, a description of life in the merchant navy and a reflection on how a high profile news story impacts on the family and friends left at home. The combination was a good one and broke up the pace of the adventure story in an easy-to-read way. The different ways in which close members of the family coped with the media storm at home was very insightful.

Interestingly many of us had seen the film where the emphasis was only on the adventure part although, unlike the book, the film contained some telling background to the state of the Somalis who were sent out to effect piracies and the manipulation of them by warlords in Somalia who would not accept failure. In effect the pirates could hardly win. Either they died in the attempt or they died if they returned empty-handed. The truth of their desperation was much more in evidence in the film.

We all enjoyed the clever use, by Captain Phillips, of misinformation to the pirates and the subtle ways in which the crew, who previously hardly knew each other, manipulated the circumstances on the ship to make life as confusing as possible to the pirates. The tension of the build-up to a resolution of the hostage-taking of the captain was well-paced and kept us on our toes until the end.

Perhaps predictably, the conclusion of the story contains much American-style self-congratulation of the captain, the U.S. Navy and everything American.

A particular point emerged about Kindle versus book use. The book contains a number of photos to illustrate the story, printed in the middle of the book. Book users were able to skim through these and know the story’s outcome without reading the text which rather gave the game away. Kindle readers were unaware of the pictures until they appeared at the end of the text and were enjoyed in a more retrospective way without giving away the plot.

A good choice, easy and well-paced to read with an inevitable American perspective.

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Prisoner of birthHempnall Book Club – A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

We chose to tackle Jeffrey Archer after strong recommendation from within the group, aware that his work is often criticised by the literary media but enjoyed by the general reader. We decided to find out which view was more accurate.

The book’s cover gave no real indication of the content but the title (and the common knowledge of Jeffrey Archer’s past) made it clear that he would use his inside knowledge of prison life to illustrate a story.

The theme follows a typical Jeffrey Archer pattern of an innocent person wrongly treated, followed by subsequent attempts to gain retribution. The usual story of hapless goodie versus crafty baddies. This time issues of class and wealth are used to good effect to show how pre-existing prejudices and stereotypes can still be very active even in an advanced legal system such as ours is meant to be.

The hero, Danny, is an East End young man with a limited expectation of himself and his life who becomes accused of a murder which he didn’t commit. In fact the crime itself is described at the beginning of the book in a way which means that the reader always knows the truth whatever the subsequent twists and turns.

Danny’s time in prison, and his encounters with lawyers, allow Archer to exploit his inside knowledge well although Danny’s prison life often seems cosier than the reality surely is. Danny’s friendship and subsequent morphing into his upper class ex-military cell-mate Nick starts to extend credibility rather far but we reminded ourselves that this is a good story which rattles along and keeps our attention, but it is inevitably fiction. Danny’s apparent suicide also stretches our belief but we all enjoyed the pace and readability of the story.

The twists and turns in the story are clever and the ending is clever too. Nobody felt short-changed by Mr. Archer and acknowledged that his literary style might be simple but it was engaging and easy to enjoy. He can certainly tell a story but perhaps he is already well-known for that. We would all be happy to choose a Jeffrey Archer for short-term gratification when an easy to pick up and put down book was needed. 

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The AlchemistHempnall Book Club – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is more of a parable than a real story containing many spiritual and philosophical ideas as well as spiritual themes such as the search for fulfilment of dreams, the role of fate and love, and the recognition of omens. In fact, the book is so full of philosophical advice that the list of quotable lines is extensive.

In our group, as in everywhere else, there were those whose sense of the religious and spiritual values was strong, and others whose only interest was in dealing with reality. For the non-spiritual, no amount of charming, nicely written pieces of philosophical optimism would be anything more than words aimed at deflecting proper acceptance of the reality of everyday life.

Santiago, the shepherd, dreams of travel and treasure while repetitively moving his sheep around the Spanish countryside. One day he decides to follow his heart and find his treasure. “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting”.

He gets advice from a gypsy woman, a wise man who says he is a king, and meets a learned man who takes his information from books and not from sayings and omens. The wise man gives him two stones in a pouch. One for “yes” and one for “no” so that when Santiago has a dilemma, he can let the stones make the choice, thus allowing fate to decide.

Eventually Santiago meets the alchemist himself who is the only man who can create gold. The alchemist eventually explains that it would be impossible for him to teach anyone else how to make gold because if he did, then everyone could learn how do it, and gold would have no value.

Just as Santiago nears his dreamed-for treasure, an Arab soldier tells him that he has has also had a dream and that there is treasure under an old dead tree growing in a deserted church in the Spanish countryside – the very place that Santiago used to tend his sheep. Santiago complains, but the alchemist reminds him that if he had told him at the beginning where the treasure was, he would not have travelled across Africa, learned how to run a business, learned to speak Arabic and finally seen the Pyramids themselves, among many other experiences.

Paulo Coelho wrote this short book in two weeks and it has sold over thirty million copies in sixty-one languages. We felt that the translation, from the original Portuguese, was particularly well done, retaining the lightness and charm intended by the author.

The philosophical tale that it tells is not new, appearing as “The Ruined Man who became rich again following a dream” in the “The Arabian Nights”, and most interestingly in the tale of the “Pedlar of Swaffham” who is depicted on the Swaffham town sign.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedlar_of_Swaffham

The philosophy of the stories is summed up in four lines near the end of T.S. Elliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
”.

Whether that means anything to you, only you can decide.

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Casual vacancyHempnall Book Club         The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling    

We chose this book to see whether J.K. Rowling could write a good book for adults given the amazing success of the Harry Potter series. A few of us had read some Harry Potter and it had been particularly popular with older children, enticing them to read enthusiastically. Could she do a similar job on adults? 

The cover of the book was relatively uninformative but with the name of the author clearly stated. The length of the book surprised us. Five hundred pages, around thirty main characters and numerous social themes covering many middle and working class social issues. These included drugs, racism, teenage sex, prostitution, rape, and conflicts within families, between families and between individuals.

Much of the book is taken up with dialogue including bad language and bad behaviour which was unpleasant for many of us to read. With so many characters and so many themes we all found it difficult to remember who everybody was and where they all fitted together. The chapters flitted rapidly from one scenario to another and one relationship to another.

In the end we wondered why the publishers had allowed this and not edited it to a more acceptable size, probably about half the length and content. Maybe J.K. Rowling is too powerful to be told that her writing needs to be controlled or maybe it was going to sell anyway because of her name. In fact it has indeed been a best-seller on her name alone but it is also one of the books stated to be amongst the most often started but subsequently never finished.

The sheer number of social issues inevitably gave us plenty to talk about. Perhaps the most interesting were the education and social development of Krystal Wheedon, and the cultural and social issues of the educated Pakistani Jawanda family. We felt that developing these at the expense of some of the other social stereotypes would have been more worthwhile.

In the end, few of us would recommend this book and several were put off by the dismal themes and the frequent bad language.

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Empire of the sunHempnall Reading Group Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

This was a book that was hard to enjoy because of its grim content but it nevertheless provoked a good deal of discussion about the politics of the time, the conditions which thousands of people had to endure and the eventual fruitlessness of war.

Jim, who tells his story from a child’s perspective, is effectively the author himself and the book is a mixture of fiction and fact with a strong influence from the author’s personal memories of his time in China. Jim begins his story as the privileged child of a wealthy British family in Shanghai, observing the poverty and torments of the indigenous poor Chinese population. Then, with the onset of the Japanese occupation, he finds the tables turned and he himself becomes correspondingly impoverished and alone.

Jim’s story is that of his survival within prison camps under the control of the Japanese. He describes in a rather “matter of fact” way the suffering of both his fellow prisoners and the Japanese and Chinese soldiers with whom he finds himself. Apart from the instinct to survive, his quest to re-unite himself with his parents becomes his main motivation. Along the way he makes useful liaisons with fellow prisoners, and with his Japanese captors, and develops an admiration for the sheer courage and determination of the young soldiers whose lives are similarly wretched and just as likely to be short. Despite the dreadful conditions, Jim describes the excitement of the air raids on the camp as seen through a child’s mind and he marvels at the power of the American planes that attack the Japanese.

After the dropping of the atomic bombs, the flash of which Jim sees, the war is suddenly over but the world outside the prison camp is more dangerous than it was within it. Gradually he finds his way back to his original home and encounters his parents. They too had lived through shocking times and were now emotionless and indifferent to his presence.

Perhaps the main discussion points from this book were initiated by the author’s notes at the end. Why did westerners stay in Shanghai when conflict began? Did the dropping of the atomic bombs actually prevent the loss of tens of thousands of lives had the war continued? Did the Americans actually gain anything from the war in the Pacific? Did everybody involved underestimate the dogged courage of the Japanese soldier?

It was a powerful read but hardly a pleasant one.

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Patchwork PlanetHempnall Book Club     A Patchwork Planet By Anne Tyler

This book was chosen as an example of American literature and it illustrated the American style nicely with plenty of description of “small town” American life and relatively less plot and purpose. For some of the group this balance was endearing and enjoyable while for others it was somewhat directionless and wordy, rather as might have been expected.

Barnaby, the central character was a reformed small-time burglar, albeit of other peoples’ mementoes rather than money. He was now a reliable and trusted community worker but with relatively little ambition for himself. He had come from a wealthy family but remained burdened by a debt of money which he was determined to re-pay. His mother had dominated him and was further empowered by his indebtedness.

In a chance event, Barnaby encounters Sophia and deliberately engineers an introduction. Their relationship at first seems pleasant enough, giving Barnaby stability and purpose, but Sophia’s gradual dominance of Barnaby turns her into a copy of his mother.

Barnaby’s job (a popular idea amongst our group of “a man for a job”) leads him mostly to work with old people and their difficulties. This hit a nerve and maybe we all sometimes need a job to be one that we just can’t do.

In the end Barnaby’s debts don’t get paid, Sophia fades away and Barnaby ends up with a workmate whom he knows well and with whom he has had a minor fling.

More than the story, the book seemed to raise some uncomfortable questions:

  • How often does someone randomly spot an attractive person and force an introduction?
  • How do elderly people actually deal with stuff that they can’t do?
  • How often does someone that you work with slowly become your closest, and sexiest,  buddy?
  • When you marry someone, does that person represent your best choice or do you start close and then grow together in a much more meaningful way?
  • How random are relationships anyway and does it really matter if you are content? 

As ever with new reading this has been a good new experience. Whether we liked it or not there was much new stuff to discuss.

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Dissolution Hempnall Book Club  Dissolution by   C J Sansom    

I know relatively little about history so some background of what the dissolution of the monasteries was all about was interesting. So was the old notion that everything had some dire religious consequence attached to it although that belief still pertains in other parts of the world.

I found it hard to remember which monk was which to start with but the character of Shardlake was well defined and the description of his disability, in a world where everything needed to be perfect, was a good contrast. The fear of Cromwell and the danger of opposing the king were both constant threats throughout the book

The story plods along and it takes a lot of words to describe a fairly simple plot. A lot of those words are related to describing the everyday life of a monastery which was interesting although lengthy.

I found the involvement of Alice, and Mark’s affair with her slightly odd, especially as they seem to team up and then get away at the end remarkably easily without any noticeable relevance to the story.

The dictionary on my Kindle got a lot of use as the author is obviously very familiar with old English words.

On the whole and enjoyable and informative book even if it was a bit plodding.

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PerfumePerfume by Patrick Suskind   Hempnall Reading Group

The book

From the beginning

Grenouille was described by the author as “tick-like” despite giving him the name of a frog. During the story he attaches himself to various patrons and the ones from whom he draws most knowledge (blood) do indeed end up dead so perhaps that is the intended analogy., it was clear that this was going to be a weird book. The story of a man from a dismally poor background whose only talent, and later obsession, lay in his phenomenal ability to recognise and remember smells. In fact, we have to imagine a world where he himself is only seen if he has a smell, which he bizarrely doesn’t. If he wants to influence the people around him he has to manufacture one.

Not surprisingly, as a young adolescent man, Grenouille is one day smitten by the scent and presence of a beautiful adolescent girl and accidently kills her, giving him the opportunity to examine the scents around her whole naked body. His subsequent ambition and obsession is to capture and preserve the essence of these scents, representing, to him, the amalgamation of the unbearably beautiful sensations of love, sexual attraction and physical beauty.

Having killed numerous examples of beautiful young women in order to collect their essences, he is finally captured and sentenced to death. But the pinnacle of his achievement, the flacon which he produces at the event of his execution serves only to induce love and physical gratification in the assembled, previously angry, audience, while Grenouille himself continues to remain singularly alone and unloved.

His life ends at the hand of the very substance which he has striven so hard to create as he tips the whole bottle over himself thus becoming so overwhelmingly attractive that everybody nearby not only wants to love him but also to have a piece of him – literally.

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The film

It was challenging to us to imagine how a film could adequately represent the story of the world of a man for whom sight and sound were incidental but smell was the dominating motivation of his life. There were, of course, plenty of scenes of sniffing and of bottles of preserved essences being mixed and compared. But surprisingly well illustrated was the dilemma that love and physical attraction, though an intense and moving emotional mix can only be truly felt when it is reciprocated. Grenouille could ultimately capture the spirit of the very  emotion he most desperately wanted to feel but would never personally experience it. In fact, when he finally induces it in others, he perishes as a result.

The book included much comparative material about the making of scents, the constituents available and their ultimate combining into a meaningful mixture. Much of this we found tedious. Grenouille later spends seven years living alone, contemplating the nature of life and people, in a cave, a feature which seems to have spiritual or religious analogies. The film largely ignores this which was a relief because we mainly felt that the book didn’t need it.

The film also leaves out the association between Grenouille and the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse with the latter’s experiments on the hypothesis of “fluidum letale”. Again an item not particularly helpful to the development of the theme of the inaccessibility of love to the unloved. Apart from those, the film was entirely faithful to the book.

The later part of the film in which Grenouille becomes highly motivated in capturing the essence of sexual and emotional attraction by killing, but not otherwise abusing, virginal young women is much more engaging. The portrayal of the painfulness of knowing what love and attraction feels like, without ever being offered a share of it, is powerfully presented by the film in a manner which was not so easy to feel in the book. An orgy involving thousands of previously angry people, induced by Grenouille’s bottle of scent, seemed a pretty bizarre idea in the book, but seeing Grenouille standing painfully alone, and starting to cry, as he watches  the rest of the world experiencing the physical and emotional gratification that he so badly wanted to capture for himself, was much more moving. He had captured it, induced it in everyone else but would still never feel it himself.

The conclusion, in which he uses the whole bottle of essence on himself, inducing adoration that is so strong that, rather than inducing the love he wants to feel, it induces irrepressible and frantic desire in which he is torn to bits. Killed by the strength of the very emotion that he had struggled so hard to feel and to create.

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The author

Patrick Suskind is a German author and this book is a translation from German. He wrote a modest amount of material and apparently now lives as a recluse. He does not allow photos or interviews and has withdrawn from the literary world. “Perfume” won a World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2006 and was on the best seller of Der Speigel for nine years. It was written in 1985.

That WomanThat Woman: the life of Wallis Simpson by Anne Sebba

 Hempnall Reading Group

This was our first go at a biography and it produced a very lively discussion based more on the moralities of the time, and of the upper classes, than on the quality of the writing. In fact several people gave up reading the book after the first few chapters finding no sense of engagement or narrative in the author’s style.

Anne Sebba is a noted biographer so it was a surprise to find this book hard to engage with. The author has clearly done loads of research as evidenced by the extensive references at the back of the book but it is presented like a chronological catalogue of quotes and names with little feeling of flow or story. However, the perseverance of most of us got us to the rather more interesting time surrounding, and after, the abdication.

An early shock, as soon as Chapter Two, was a rather mean-spirited attack on Wallis’s sexuality or sexual genetics raising the possibility of some sort of inter-gender state but later admitting that there was no direct evidence for this. Subsequently when Wallis has “an operation” it was suggested that this was for the correction of this abnormality, again admitting that there was no actual evidence for it. Later, Wallis is said to have learned some bedroom “tricks” during some previous time in China when she will have been familiar with brothels. Again there is no evidence for this. We wondered whether this was an attempt to make Wallis’s story more salacious, either by the author or at the prompting of the publisher. Either way, it didn’t seem necessary.

Wallis was overtly flirty, a social climber and a party lover, apparently with a skill in repartee and wit. Her declared ambition was to achieve a work-free comfortable life at the expense of whatever husband she could most successfully find. Her first two goes achieved comfort, but ended in divorce, partly because her appetite for social climbing did not stop when she married, ending with Wallis wanting to meet the future king of England. When she did, she put on her most beguiling behaviour with the result that Edward was overwhelmed and despite Wallis’s later attempts to retreat to her more sensible previous husband, there was no shaking Edward off. In fact we wondered if his oppressive pursuit of Wallis would these days be tantamount to “stalking”. Anyway, Wallis had eventually bitten off more than she could chew and had inadvertently, and irretrievably, lost control of her situation.

Edward is portrayed as besotted but shallow with no sense of the responsibility of his position and a reckless preparedness to allow any sort of damage to the monarchy and the constitutional government as long as he could have Wallis. Many political moves were attempted by the government of the day to avoid making this relationship either public or legal, but without success. When Edward eventually got his way, he was shocked to find himself and Wallis exiled and their connection with British royalty and upper classes, severed. His attempts to have Wallis titled HRH seemed to illustrate his naivety as well as the simplicity of his assumption that his life of power and wealth would remain unchanged.

Wallis and Edwards relationship later seemed to become directionless and meaningless, at least from Wallis’s point of view. She was known to openly insult and criticise Edward to which he responded by finding her ever more expensive jewellery as appeasement. Their lives ended in a miserable and lonely way, far from the opulence and influence that Wallis had earlier craved and Edward had assumed was taken for granted.

We had an enjoyable discussion about the power and relevance of divorce in the early 1900’s and its lack of importance now, for example in the relationships of the current royal children. Similarly, we discussed the weakness of the press of the time in the face of the power of the monarchy, and the fact that the opposite situation exists now.

As a historical documentation of the time surrounding the infamous abdication of Edward, most of us found this book interesting. As an engaging story for a non-historian, we felt that it wouldn’t work.

Angela’s Review

I found the autobiography of Wallis Simpson, very well researched and detailed, and it chartered her life from childhood right up to her death.
There is a lot of content in the book, and my dilemma is going to be in keeping it concise – here goes…..
I really enjoyed the book, I knew of Wallis Simpson and the course of history her association with the Prince of Wales would take. However my opinion of her was what had been portrayed of her by various TV programmes and magazine/ newspaper articles. I was keen to find out more about Wallis Simpson and if she really was a brash, shallow and materialistic American, or whether Anne Sebba’s book would show her in a more favourable light. It did not, if anything it confirmed all of these things and more, it also showed that Edward VIII was just as bad and they probably deserved one another.
The author gave a good description of Wallis’ childhood, her family, growing up and of her previous marriages before Edward. I wasn’t sure what to make about the author eluding that Wallis had a medical condition ‘DSD’ disorder of sexual development, or AIS or even pseudo-hermaphrodite, as one phrase she would say there was strong evidence to suggest this and then later saying that without a scan or DNA testing there is no medical proof. There is then no other ref made about this in the book. We then move onto her time in China and what she ‘may’ have learnt there! This is Anne Sebba’s account of Wallis Simpson, based on what she believes and documents she has read which enabled her to come to the conclusions she has.
Would I have picked this book up – Yes. Did the cover get my attention – Yes. Did I believe in the characters – yes as they were real.
I think to enjoy the book, it probably would help if you were remotely interested in the person the book is written about, which I did. The book was very detailed, but I liked the way it was structured, starting from the beginning of Wallis and carrying on through her life and her subsequent death.
Some parts did drag on a bit, but the author definitely portrayed that it was a very decadent and lavish era and that money and the right connections meant you  moved in the right circles. I thought the photos throughout the book where very interesting, if anything I would have liked to have seen more!
Interestingly there was a programme on TV recently, about the letters found written by Wallis, which the author based this book on. What comes across in the book is that Wallis was very happy with her second husband Ernest and life was very secure and comfortable for her. An opportunity presented her to meet the future King and there begins the journey which ended with a King abdicating for a woman he ‘loves’ – well not quite, he was childish, spoilt and shallow with no sense of duty or responsibility and completely obsessed by this woman (I think it could have been any woman who paid him enough attention and pampered to his every whim).  As for Wallis, she bit of more than she could chew, and found that the situation developed and took momentum, which she was unable to stop or control. You could say her punishment for her behaviour was being stuck with Edward. Their married life together, carried on the same theme. It seemed to have no purpose, other than to socialise, buy jewels and his obsession that she be made HRH? I don’t believe he thought for one moment that when he abdicated, this is what his life would become. I doubt he thought about it at all, and just assumed being a monarch an ex –King, life would continue to be a big social whirl with all the benefits of a being Royal, but with none of the responsibilities. This was not the case, and they were left adrift, with no one advising them or giving them any real purpose or role. They were treated like social outcasts.
Interestingly, if Hitler had won the war, would he have made Edward his puppet King?
All in all, I found the book informative and interesting, I have been meaning to read this book for a while. For me, it did not disappoint.

Garth’s Review

Basically there were two things wrong with Wallis; one, she was divorced (twice over) and two, she was American, something the British Monarchy, Government, nor people could accept. Wallis was also strong willed, ambitious and a social climber, but Edward is portrayed as being a weak and pathetic man (perhaps he never would have been a very good king after all).
Wallis, I believe, genuinely thought the affair would last probably a couple of years only, before Edward grew tired of her, which she could have accepted, and what a feather in her cap. However far from growing tired of her, Edward’s initial infatuation developed into him becoming besotted and finally absolutely obsessed with her.
Nearing the abdication I think she genuinely wanted to finish the relationship, if nothing else than for her own ‘sanity’ as the author states.
Many parts of this book are tedious and boring and I have skimmed these relevant pages, however the the lead up to, and the abdication itself is a great event in British 20th century history. The book should not be looked upon as a silly love story. The event was a crisis bordering calamity, the result of which could have had far reaching consequences for the Monarchy and British Empire. I thought sections about PM Stanley Baldwin’s actions and views made interesting reading as did Churchill’s attitude to matters, Archbishop Lang’s outburst, the ill-timed visit to Hitler etc……
One could to some extent feel a little sorry for Wallis as by the time of the abdication she was trapped in a suffocating relationship with no way out but accepts the consequences of virtual exile more easily than Edward can.
After his death in 1972  she leads a more solitary life,  during the final ten years suffering bad health and a miserable lonely death. I would somewhat cautiously recommend this book to those interested in history as long as the notion that it is all about a silly romance is ignored.

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Hundred-year-old man

The Hundred-year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Hempnall Reading Group

An unusual book, we all agreed, and once it was accepted as a fantasy rather than a real story, it became very enjoyable.

Allan opts out of his hundredth birthday party in an old people’s home and decides to see what happens next, with no need for fear of the consequences. He steals a suitcase, which turns out to be full of money, and thus a story begins of his pursuit by criminals and police. His life is improved by chance meetings with individuals whose background he doesn’t know, and neither does he care. He is a befriender by nature and has no interest in moral or political views. As long as he has food and vodka at reasonable intervals, he is content. He is also an explosives expert from his previous working life.

While Allan is being pursued by a rather Clouseau-style police operation, as well as the dangerous owners of the suitcase, the story of his life so far reveals itself. The book divides between the humourous story line and deep historical descriptions of world events and world leaders of the last century. Curiously, Allan seems to have become personally involved with most of them, particularly in relation to his knowledge of explosives. The historical information is extensive, historically accurate (apart from Allan being there) and for most of us a bit too long and possibly rather intense. Nevertheless, it was amusingly done.

The questions that the book raises, albeit in a humourous way, involve thoughts like these: though a person might be old and look useless, he will have many stories to tell; is it possible to befriend anyone, regardless of their moral or political stance, if you don’t care about morals or politics?; is there any point in doing much other than to let what happens, happen and just carry on regardless?; if you are friendly to everyone, do you have no enemies? And lots more.

Eventually all the characters go their own ways and everyone seems satisfied with themselves without having to answer any of the above questions.

The book is a translation from Swedish and it flows well. Some of the names of the characters can be confusing as a consequence of translation e.g. Boss, Bosse etc., but the droll Scandanavian black humour is well preserved.

Well worth reading for its originality and humour.

David’s Review

What a wonderful title, it makes you want to pick it up and start o read the book.

Right from the start I got into the story and couldn’t put it down. The story started to slow down and could properly been shorter.

It appears that the author had either read the book or seen the Forest Gump film, as it was very similar, in that a simple person meets many famous people and did many remarkable deeds and adventures.

Allan was lovely people who just got up and walk out, how many of us; wish we could do the same. His adventures were a bit on the farcical side but you had to read it with tongue in cheek.

I loved the section with the elephant that just got up and walked away from the circus, and the part about seating on the villain was one of the highlights.

I thoroughly enjoyed this lighthearted funny book. The story was good and kept myself  interested throughout.

Angela’s Review

I was very intrigued to read this book as I had seen it advertised and seen the positive reviews. I really enjoyed it at the beginning, but as I read more I found it became a little bit tedious.  I enjoyed reading about the saga of the missing money and the characters Allan meets along the way, more than his encounters with world leaders, these I found a bit repetitive. I was intrigued to see how the story would evolve as they accumulated more bodies along the way. It was very convenient of Benny to have nearly all the qualifications needed to get them through tricky situations. But I was happy to accept this; even the fact that police officer Aronsson leaves the police force and goes with them! I won’t even mention the elephant……… but it was very detailed and the author did well with keeping up with the various characters and plot and made sure he didn’t leave any loose ends with them. So we all knew what had happened or rather became of them.

Would I have picked the book up by the cover, yes.

Did I find the characters believable, not really.

If I had to sum up the book in one word, then I would say it is daft.  It was reminisce of Tom Sharpe books.

I found the dialogue a bit long winded, a bit like a Quentin Tarantino film, where the characters explain their actions and train of thought most of the time. It was a mix of slapstick and black comedy. I can see it made into a film, like Forest Gump or the Pink Panther films.

Is there an underline message here, about having no political or religious beliefs………… and then meeting all these historical and political leaders……?

It was very different to what we have previously read, but not in a bad way.  I guess a quick snapshot of what has happened in history over the past 100 years. It was seen through the eyes of a man

with no views or opinions, other than where he can get vodka and food from, as these seem to dictate his actions.

In summary a light hearted read, not to be taken seriously and funny in certain places. I personally found it a wee bit too long and struggled with the last 1/4 of the book.

Lisa’s review

A book completely different to any that our Book Club has read previously, and perhaps because of this, it had me interested from the first chapter. In fact, I wanted to read it as soon as I read the cover!

I particularly liked the silly story of the current day adventures of Allan after he ‘escaped’ from the Old People’s home on the day of his 100th birthday party. But I found some of the names a little confusing – Bucket, Bolt, Bosse and ‘Boss’.

I found the tales of Allan’s past life and how he had interacted with historical events of 20th Century interesting initially, but more tedious as the book went on, until towards the end I found them to be annoying interruptions to the current day saga. The concept of the book reminded me of the film ‘Forrest Gump’ in the way that the main character had a very unexpected but at times momentous past.

On the face of it, this was a daft, light-hearted read and a book not to be taken very seriously. If you did want to intellectualise it more, you could argue that the author was trying to make the point that you shouldn’t take people, especially our old people, on face value and that everyone has much more to them if we only took the time to uncover it. Allan was not just an old nuisance waiting for death in his old people’s home, but was still capable of more and had a past that was worth bothering to find it out about, and he should have been appreciated more.

On the whole I found the book enjoyable, and would recommend it to others.

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Case histories

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Hempnall Reading Group

Kate Atkinson’s complex story woven around three family tragedies elicited widely varying responses in our book club.  Some of us found the book intriguing, wittily written and cleverly constructed, whilst others thought the plot unrealistic and the characters unconvincing.  I am firmly in the camp of the former so you should bear in mind while reading this review that there were others with a sharply different perspective.  In fact, a couple of people thought the bulk of the story to be waffle and abandoned it part way through.

The opening chapters vividly describe three unrelated but equally shocking murders that have taken place many years before, and their shattering effect on the lives of the victims’ families.  The violence and horror of these events leave us reeling and wondering where the novel will take us next.  The answer is to Jackson Brodie, the enigmatic private detective engaged to investigate these three very cold cases.  Brodie finds little satisfaction in either his work or his personal life, except for his sporadic relationship with his much-loved daughter who lives with his estranged wife.  He is the classically cynical private investigator, but he has a reluctant empathy with his clients which compels him to take on these apparently hopeless cases.  His persistent if, at times, random pursuit of the truth leads him to unravel long-past events and ultimately justifies the rather naïve faith of his clients.  They, like us, recognise that Brodie is, essentially, a good man whose underlying motivation is to uncover the certainty they crave.  How he manages to do this with no apparent income is one of the novel’s great mysteries!

This novel is not so much a ‘who-dunnit’ as a clever, progressive revelation of events and motives.  Atkinson leads us skilfully to speculate, reason and finally understand. The complexities of her plot are constructed meticulously, but finding out what actually happened and who was responsible for the murders are only part of the book’s appeal.  It is the stories of the families that are most compelling. Important themes are carefully balanced, for example, the incomprehensible violence of the murders with the mundane frustrations of Brodie’s fractured domestic life.  This book is both dark and funny.  The exploration of grief is central to the story but humour simmers continuously beneath the surface.  Events often take a surreal turn but Atkinson’s writing is unfailingly witty and she never allows the amusingly implausible to descend into the farcical.  For example, Amelia’s lesbian encounter in the naturist group comes completely out of the blue but her surprise and pleasure tell us much about the healing of her long-standing emotional damage.  Atkinson is also very good at using small details to suggest insights into her characters’ lives and personalities.  Her bracketed asides may appear inconsequential but they often nudge our understanding of events on.

Case Histories is a very good read.  Just occasionally it stretches the reader’s credibility too far, for example, Quintus’s melodramatic attempts to murder Brodie, and the ending may be a touch too neat and optimistic.  However, these are minor failings and only serve to emphasise the underlying quality of Atkinson’s engaging writing.  Overall, this is a touching story about loss and recovery, populated by believable and often flawed human beings.

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ice cream girlsThe Ice Cream Girls by  DorothyKoomson        

Hempnall Reading Group

After a few previous choices about which we have been somewhat half-hearted, this book was a recommendation by one of our members. She was apologetic in advance about the rather uninspiring title, insisting that it is not chick-lit and that we would all be quickly hooked. And this was true – for some of us. The Ice Cream Girls was most definitely a ‘marmite’ book – really enjoyed by half of the group (predominantly the women), but strongly disliked by the other half (mostly the men) – which made for an interesting discussion.

The two girls in the story are involved in a murder. One girl, Poppy, is punished by imprisonment and the other, Serena, is not. When Poppy is released after twenty years she is determined to prove herself innocent by making Serena confess that she was the actual murderer.

By a series of flashbacks and real-time scenes we come to know the girls’ story. The author writes openly about the naïve emotions of post-pubescent teenage girls and their willingness to exchange under-age sex for the feeling of the appreciation and attention of an older man. At the same time, the duplicity of the man in taking advantage of the teenagers is clear. These clashing physical and emotional intentions are described with sufficient subtlety that, despite the obvious presence of illegal sex in the story, there is no need for any explicit language.

The question of how both girls could each consider themselves to be wholly innocent and yet be the only ones present at the murder of their exploiter, remains hanging in the air until the end. Eventually the crime itself is described and the parts played by the girls becomes clear. To discuss the actual dénouement would be to give too much away but it is clever and, to some of the group unexpected, although to others obvious and unimaginative.

Many of the group, even those who enjoyed reading the book, found several aspects of the story difficult to believe. One of the things that was most incredible was the attitude of Poppy’s parents (and her father especially) who had been so loving to her before her conviction, yet decided to have no contact with her during her years in prison, and completely ignored her after her release and return to the family home. Equally difficult to believe by many of us, was the fact that Serena had managed to keep her past a total secret from her husband, Evan, for so many years, and then later that this kind man would react so badly and seemingly out of character when eventually he did find out. Other storylines which were hard to accept were that Poppy would be able trust her boyfriend Alain again after finding out his initial motive for befriending her; and that the teenage girls’ loving families had not become aware of or concerned about the physical injuries that Marcus inflicted on them over a sustained period.

Dorothy Koomson is certainly an author some of us would choose again. Additionally, those that enjoyed the book are anticipating the story being televised later in the year. Although the book depicts as one girl is white and one black, there is no racial reference in the story, and contrary to stereotype the convicted girl Poppy, is white, whereas Serena who was found not guilty is black.

To most, Marcus the abuser, although totally horrendous with no redeeming aspects to his personality, was the more interesting and complex character. The subject matter of exploitation and physical and mental abuse left most of us feeling uncomfortable, but it was not written in a gratuitous manner.  Although some found the switching from present to past a little tedious at first, those who enjoyed the story soon dealt with this, and also chose not to question some of the more incredible parts, accepting it as an easy to read book. However, others in the group found it so annoying that they were barely able to finish the book.

Three reviews in one today! Hempnall Reading Group offer us three different perspectives on this memoir.

amore

1) This was an unusual book in my opinion and difficult to critique.
It was more like a diary made into a book than an autobiography.
I found the fact that it was written in the present tense, although it was relating events in her past a little annoying at first, but I got used to it.
There were a lot of different names and certainly by the 4th book I had trouble remembering who was who, and what they had done or how they had been involved in the previous books.
She clearly adores Italian food, and her enthusiasm really comes across and was quite contagious. I can imagine her newspaper column is popular.
It’s difficult to say there was really much of a point to the story, or a development of the characters, as it was a just a record of actual events and people who she knew.
Saying all this, I don’t know why exactly, but i quite liked it as an easy read. The recipes were a good idea and if i owned the book and wasn’t handing it back, I’d probably try some myself – she really made them sound mouth watering!
A light hearted read, better than I thought it would be from the cover, not much depth to it but I don’t think that’s what she had been trying to do – it was as if she needed to write it down for own benefit.
I think it would be good to read if actually on holiday in Tuscany – which I almost feel inspired to do!

2) This is a lightly written and easy to read account of a young woman’s fascination with her young adult life living and working in small Italian restaurants. She describes events rather more in the style of a journal than a story. In fact there isn’t really a story apart from the progress of her life. The insertion of recipes – which are pretty simple (in my understanding of cooking) although characteristically Italian, – seems a bit obvious, making this book into a scrapbook as well as a journal.
Why would someone write such a book? Clearly she looks back on this part of her life with affection much as some of us look back on our student days. Her emotional attachments to the other restaurant workers are largely superficial and seem to me to equate with most of our experiences in sampling relationships in a teenage sort of way. The fact that she ends up in bed with several of the people she works with is a reflection of how narrow our personal lives often are.
Apart from Victoria herself, the only character with any substance is Gianfranco. He seems to be a mixture of hero and villain but, to me, rather dislikeable. He seems to be more likely to be angry than kind. In fact the sort of man to whom women are typically drawn, then end up being surprised when they are badly treated.
Without enthusiasm, I eventually finished the book and find that at fifty years old she is still re-living her young adult memories in the hope that it will all feel the same. Fortunately we didn’t have to read about her going to bed with the original cast again when all in their fifties.

Having made a subsequent career in Australia as a food writer specialising in Italian cookery, I suppose this book might be a justification of her credentials to her fans but otherwise it felt rather like telling your children how crazy you were when you were young, only for them to turn around and say that you should hear what they did. Probably best not to.

3) We all found this book rather difficult to critique, but none-the-less managed to have a lively discussion about it!

Judging the book from its cover, we felt it promised a light-hearted, interesting and credible story. It was not to be. A few people couldn’t bring themselves to finish it, and those who did, in the hope of finding some late developments and a satisfying conclusion, were disappointed.

We all felt the book was more of a loosely constructed journal, blog or scrapbook than a well-crafted account of significant events in the author’s life. At times, she glossed over whole decades and the descriptions of many of her experiences were brief and superficial. Consequently, we gained little sense of place or character. Several of us had no secure image of the main characters. There was very little ‘fleshing out’ of their physical characteristics or personality traits.

Some felt it was more of a cookery book, and opinion was divided on the merits of this. Some felt the recipes were intrusive whilst others were moved try some out.

By the end of the story we knew what the author had done at particular times in her life, but we were left with a very limited understanding of how she felt until, perhaps, towards the end of the book. We learnt that she had fallen in love with someone back home in Australia but even this supposedly pivotal experience was recorded rather unemotionally.

Some of us felt that the author cut a rather sad figure and certainly many of her relationships were transitory and appeared inconsequential. Some also questioned why she had written the book at all, and felt it was an over-indulgent exercise or that it might simply have grown out of the success of her newspaper column.

Most of us wouldn’t say that we actively disliked the book. Rather, we were largely indifferent and felt that there was no genuine narrative to ‘grip’ our interest and imagination.

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Hempnall Reading Group

The Luminous life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin

Luminous life of Lilly Aphrodite

Review 1

I liked this book – I felt that the writing was very vital and imaginative and aptly described the horrors of war and those that had to live in cities and cope with the outcomes. I was particularly interested in the rise of Nazism and felt that the author had captured well the contradictions that this provoked. It was a dark book and the ending was horrid – all the way through I wanted something good to happen and it never did, but then the historical context didn’t really lend itself to positivism and optimism – it was a grim period in history for Germany and well researched.

This is a story of survival at times bleak and filled with desperation. The main character, Lily was complex and one felt very much a victim of circumstances, unable to be in control of anything very much but fighting her way through indescribable horrors and misery. I liked the early part of the book and the development of her relationship with Hanne, how this grew with time – Lily was quite a stalwart in the face of fate really but it was chance that seemed to play a large part in her personal story. I did not find the men, on the whole particularly interesting, (except perhaps for Otto who added some interest as he drifted in and out of the plot), more a foil for the two girls. Eve contributed to the story involving herself with both characters and driving the plot forward especially laying the foundation, I think, for the final awful ending. Her brother was rather plastic, but served the purpose of bringing out the characters of the three women and contributing to the ironic finale, emphasising the chances that fate contributed in those dreadful times.

Hanne was very interesting, a well drawn character – a child of her time – living in the world of decadent Berlin, a Christopher Isherwood character straight out of Sally Bowles, her life depicted a valid picture of the Berlin’s sexual underworld of between the wars. She was a woman who gravitated to whoever was able to give her any affection and her death was a tragedy but not unexpected. But it is Berlin, the city moving through pre and post-war economic crisis, social and political shifts and artistic movements that stands out, almost as a main character in itself and for me provided a fascinating backdrop which I felt to be very authentic and absolutely riveting.
I lost the thread and interest somewhere halfway through – it tended to go on a bit and lost pace – especially during the “film star” years which I didn’t find terribly convincing. However, I persevered and was rewarded, if that is the right word, by the increasing pace of the last chapters which culminated in the final irony which I found quite devastating – I am not very good with unhappy endings, but I felt this one worked.
The interplay with Goebbels was a bit lost on me and didn’t add much to the storyline – I felt it was a bit gratuitous and thrown in without serving much purpose although I suppose it added to the background of the story. And it is this background in which all the characters led their lives which I found the most interesting – a good read – mostly well paced and certainly well researched. I would be interested to know what else she has written.
The cover didn’t particularly inspire me but the synopsis on the back did and I think I might have picked this up on that basis.

Review 2

What an interesting book this is! We really enjoyed most of the story, and there is so much to say about this book that these are just some thoughts and ideas amongst many. Although we enjoyed the story, both of us found some of the passages relating just to the development of film over the years, particularly in the second half of the story, tedious and over engineered.
The essence of the story seemed to be about Lilly’s search for love, having not had the experience of being loved. Set in Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century, documenting the rise of the Nazis, the author had clearly researched well. At times there seemed to be too much detail – although interesting, we both found those sections a bit tedious. The first part of the book about her upbringing was grim, but fascinating. We got the sense that, through no fault of their own, both Lilly and her friend Hannah were emotionally stunted through their lack of having no proper family. Also Hannah had too much responsibility thrust on her at early age, and this she couldn’t sustain. Even Sister August, who was Lilly’s first experience of love, had a complex emotional motivation related to her childhood. Sister August seemed to function mainly from a sense of duty, with occasional glimpses of what love could do. Hannah and Sister August were the two that Lilly had her first loving relationships with, but there was a sterility & coldness about them, which chimed with the rise of Nazism in the 20’s and 30’s. All the characters, to an extent, seemed to have low expectations of life and accept their lack of fulfilment with an almost stoic indifference. All Lilly’s possible loving relationships throughout the story were restricted in some way.
Lilly evidently grew into a beautiful and captivating woman, but she didn’t seem to see much value in herself, because she’s never been unconditionally loved. Even the producer, Ilya, who loved her didn’t love her unconditionally because of his sense of duty to the other woman in his life.
The characters are very convincing. It was grim, with little optimism. As one reads the story, you are hoping that ‘something will happen’ & there will be a satisfactory outcome, with all the suffering will be a precursor to a satisfactory life. However, this is not to be. As the story unfolds, Hannah seems to accept the cruelty of her Nazi boyfriend. Both the main characters accept their fate, as they have little sense of self-worth. Hannah’s death is awful, but understated in the story, reflecting this sense of lack of self-worth.
The part of the story we both found rather unconvincing was the huge importance that Lilly/Lidi had for Goebbels and her final tricking of him. Again, the ending was dark and grim.

Colin has an interesting way of adding depth to the story, in that she will take certain characters, and leap forward in their lives, telling us what happens to them in the future and giving a real sense of the continuation of life and existence beyond the immediate story. She does this well and it does enhance the quality of the story.

In conclusion the story reflected a very dark period of European history. It felt realistic but bleak. It was largely well written and researched. We both felt we cared about the characters and wanted to know how the story resolved.

Whilst we wouldn’t rush to find other books by this author, if the occasion arose, we would read more of her work.

 Review 3

The cover, the title and the lead character’s name promised a story of intrigue and sauciness in Berlin between the two World Wars. It turned out to be a tale of poverty and survival in the aftermath of the First World War and the build-up to the second.
The author clearly knew Berlin, and its circumstances at the time, very well. There were lots of German names and descriptive passages which required close knowledge to be accurate. The poverty and atmosphere of despair which pervaded Berlin was largely unknown to us and to hear of the story from the German side made many of us keen to know more of the history of Europe around this time.
The two girls at the heart of the story, Lilly and Hanne, were abandoned, unloved and obliged to survive a life of authoritarian austerity in a children’s home. Their mentor, Sister August was similarly alone, unloved and taking what pleasure she could from looking after the children. Lack of self-esteem seemed accepted and normal.
Unsurprisingly, the girls started to get out of the home and discover the seedy world of life on the streets. Both learned to survive by selling their femininity in night clubs, Lilly being more discrete than Hanne and eventually using her beauty to get small roles in films. The atmosphere reminded us of “Cabaret” and the parallel story of Sally Bowles.
The lives of the girls progress rather slowly, Lilly eventually having a deeper relationship with a famous Russian film director, Ilya. In keeping with the loveless lives of all the characters, Ilya cannot commit to Lilly because of a promise to another woman back in Russia but she still makes a name for herself in films.
The involvement of National Socialism in Germany starts to become more important and we could feel a sympathy with the development of this movement in the same way that we see current European monetary issues creating a determined backlash in the reaction of badly affected countries now.
Eventually Hanne comes to a grim end and Lilly tries unsuccessfully to break into American films but subsequently comes back to Ilya in Germany. In a scene not unlike the von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music” Lilly and Ilya try to make an escape but it all ends badly and the despair continues.
Having finished the book, we were happy to have the gloom lifted and to return to our more comfortable lives. We had little idea of the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and the rise of National Socialism before this book and would all like to know more of Germany’s story around this time. Whether Lilly was “luminous” was hard to know. There was nothing light about the story. The only other luminous reference (apart from alliteration) must be the film connection.
After reading the acknowledgements we find out that the film names are mostly made up and the description of Germany at that time comes from the author’s great-aunt. Maybe she was the real Lilly Aphrodite.
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