Book Club Reviews 2017
No two persons ever read the same book. Edmund Wilson
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Anne Barrows
This is an epistolary novel: a fictional collection of letters, telegrams and notes. Lots of us were put off by the title at first, but eventually enjoyed the book on several levels. The story centres around an author looking for a subject for her next book who unexpectedly becomes involved with the residents of Guernsey, learning of their experiences during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. Very few of us knew anything about the occupation in the Channel Islands and the book made for an interesting history lesson. Not only an historical novel though, but a love story, and a fascinating inventory for the bibliophile. It was sad and comic at the same time.
The reason for the two authors was because Mary Ann Shaffer became ill before the book was finished and her niece, Ann Burrows, completed the novel. Shaffer never saw her novel in published form.
Whilst most were very enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyed the book, not all of us liked the epistolary format. There were also some things that weren’t quite right: the Americanised names of the characters; the atmosphere in what was supposed to be postwar London, was more in keeping with contemporary times.
This was not considered a masterpiece by any means, but it was a page-turner and thoroughly enjoyed by most, leaving some going away to learn more about the German occupation and others to read more epistolary works. (I have a list if you are interested).
The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas
The Kashmir Shawl is a gentle, easy read with two story lines, two generations apart. Mair sets out to follow her grandmother’s journey to Kashmir, who had travelled there as a Welsh Presbyterian Missionary’s wife, and by doing so she plans to discover how the beautiful hand-woven Kashmir shawl came to be in a drawer in her mother’s house in Wales.
Everyone agreed that the research was excellent and painted a colourful picture of life in Kashmir at that time. Rosie Thomas uses her own upbringing in Wales to portray rural Wales and contrasts it with the more exotic life in Kashmir very successfully. We discussed many issues:-
1. The position of the British in India—not good.
2. The partition of India and Pakistan—again reflects badly on the British.
3. The Missionary Movement. Was it necessary to send Christian missionaries to India? India already had civil war over religion between Hindus and Muslims. Was it not unwise to introduce another religion at this time in this land?
4. Kashmir. Kashmir is still a divided country, claimed by both India and Pakistan. This is not entirely because of its immense beauty. Mountain passes facilitate movement of illegal goods into Afghanistan.
5. Pakistan: a name chosen for a country from the initials of the combining lands:
Conclusion: Everyone ought to write their life story for their grandchildren in order to give future generations a valuable insight into their family history. This could make travel to exotic places for research unnecessary, but it would provide vital information for the future.
The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming
The Titanic was a luxury passenger liner which struck an iceberg near Newfoundland on its maiden voyage to America from England on the night of 14-15 April 1912. The novel we have read was written to mark the centenary year of this disaster to make us aware of certain issues which came to light afterwards. 1513 people lost their lives.
The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable. Because of this it only had enough lifeboats for half the passengers. Following the disaster, new safety rules for ships at sea were drawn up:
1) The International Convention for safety of life at sea (1913).
2) The International Ice Patrol.
Questions were asked about the Captain’s post in the disaster:
1. Was he travelling too fast?
2. What was his part in the rescue?
3. Was it true that the first class passengers were saved and that a rope was put across the possible exit for third class passengers who were therefore left to drown?
The wreck was located in 1985 and subsequently salvaged. What evidence came from the wreck?
Some of the group said that this was a lightweight novel, easy to read. It did raise issues about the survivors, their mental damage, their guilt at being a survivor, their fear of water.
It was thought that this book had a similar form of storyline to the last book we read The Kashmir Shawl. It was also thought that The Captain’s Daughter was a misleading title for the book, as the captain’s daughter was a minor character in it. Perhaps there were too many characters, too many story lines, and the book was therefore too long. Someone suggested it was an extended Mills and Boon! Oh dear! Perhaps we are ready for more serious literature again. (Tolstoy?)
To conclude I leave you with two quotations. The first is from the author’s note in the book:
‘It is a rash man indeed, who would set himself up as a final arbiter on all that happened on the incredible night the Titanic went down.’ Walter Lord, A Night to Remember.
The second is Sir Walter Scott, but often wrongly attributed to Shakespeare:
‘Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to
Coffin Road by Peter May
At its heart the novel deals with the plight of bees, the effect of the loss of bees on agriculture and on our food supply. He investigates the role that neonicotinoids may play in this.
If this sounds rather dry and academic and a weighty subject for a novel, then do not be put off, because Peter May is a master story-teller. From the very first page, he draws you in with his description of a half-drowned man struggling to get to his feet and make sense of his surroundings and how he came to be there. He draws you into the world of this man and we all became so hooked that we didn't want to put the book down. The plot is full of twists and turns so that the reader is kept guessing to the very end as the plot steadily builds to a tense climax.
We all enjoyed reading this book without exception, even if one member did find the man's amnesia a bit of a credibility stretch. It is strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good thriller; indeed, some of us are going on to read more of Peter May's books. If the setting of the Outer Hebrides does not appeal to you, you could choose a book set in China or south-west France to become immersed in another clever, twisty plot. Happy reading!
For our summer read, we chose a novel from the thriller genre. Peter May, the author, is a multi-award winning writer with a career that spans journalism, television script-writing, creating and producing, as well as writing novels. His output is prolific, but this is not at the expense of his research of the locations and topics. He only writes about settings and locations he has personally visited.
Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin.
This novel was set in Rwanda in the aftermath of the civil war which tore the country apart between April and June 1994. This war killed 800,000 people in 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus. Militias were set up and in the space of a few hours recruits were sent all over the country to carry out slaughter. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to take part and in some cases Hutu civilians were encouraged to murder their Tutsi neighbours. The scale and spread of the slaughter left people reeling. Rebuilding the country after the war was a massive task and involved many different agencies.
The author, Gaile Parkin, has spent her life in Africa and was one of the volunteers who counselled women and girls who were survivors of the genocide. The storylines in the book are based on the true stories of the people she counselled and so she has a unique insight into the difficulties and traumas they faced.
The book is set six years after the genocide and centres on the character of Angel, a Tanzanian woman, who has recently moved to Kigali with her husband Pius, a special consultant at the new university established there. Angel bakes and ices celebration cakes for her friends and neighbours, but as she does so, she learns about the shadows of the past that haunt the people that order them. Angel has a listening ear and over tea and her brightly iced cakes she chats and offers advice to the people she meets. She says repeatedly that she is not ‘an educated somebody’ but seems able to dispense common sense and practical advice to friends and strangers alike. On one level the book is like a cosy chat with Angel, but it is about much more than this, it is about the problems and issues faced by ordinary Rwandans.
The themes of the book are many and all-encompassing. For me, the theme that ran through the book and drew the different stories together was the education and empowerment of women. Many of the characters Parkin creates are heavily based on people she met. She explores their access to education, their experiences of sexual violence, HIV Aids, and how education can liberate them to play a full role in society. The plight of orphaned children is also emphasised and the sad truth that it is the next generation that bear the burden of their parents’ actions and misfortunes.
I found some of the stories in the book deeply moving and one which ultimately gave hope of a better future whilst not shying away from the deeply disturbing stories of the past. The use of Angel and her cakes to weave the narrative around worked for me, I could readily imagine Angel dispensing her wisdom in her living room. Others in the group strongly disagreed. Some found it bitty: ‘A collection of short stories strung together by cakes’ was one verdict. Some found the mixture of cakes and humour with weighty subjects did not work. Another found it difficult to get into. One member said she did not get anything from the book at all, in spite of the fact that she had lived in Africa and understood with the issues involved.
This was Gaile Parkin's first novel and there was certainly enough material here for more than one book. It may have been better to explore the themes more fully over several books.
Why not see what you think and read the book for yourselves? Or join us at our book group to look at other many and varied novels and biographies.
Voyage Around my Mother by Eleanor Stewart.