Book Club Reviews 2018
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss
Book of one's choice by Philippa Gregory
We were asked to bring along our favourite Philippa Gregory novel, and introduce it to the group, which we did, whilst enjoying a festive spread. The Lady of the Rivers; The White Queen; The Red Queen;, The Other Boleyn Girl; The Boleyn Inheritance; Three Sisters, Three Queens were amongst the books that we talked about. Understandably some of us brought along the same titles. We had an excellent discussion even though we didn’t all particularly like Philippa Gregory’s novels. One person did not read her chosen book because she had heard that it was not historically correct, though most of us agreed that on the whole the author was renowned for her thorough research albeit she embellished the facts to make the history more readable. Another did not like stories about kings and queens and preferred to read about the ordinary man in the street. Therefore her preference was for another author C.J.Sansom who wrote historical mystery novels about the Tudor period. A lot could be learned about the period from Sansom’s books.
Some of us were tempted to read more Philippa Gregory, others had been led to reading more histories about a specific era. All in all our individual choices provoked a good discussion and a history lesson as well. The food was good too.
The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) is the favourite author of one of our members who thought it was time to introduce him to the group. Born in the Potteries, Bennett moved to London as a young man, though he never forgot his roots. In his life time, and since, his work has been vastly underrated. He was a prolific writer of books, plays, self-help manuals and was editor of a woman’s magazine, which helped him write many of his works from a woman’s perspective. He was also champion of young up and coming writers and artists and associated with other great writers of the day.
The Old Wives Tale is Bennett’s best known novel and his masterpiece. It takes place in the Potteries, and in Paris (where he also lived for a time) and tells the story of two sisters, very different in temperament: Charlotte who never moved from the house in which she was born, and Sophie who craved adventure and ran away from home, only returning towards the end of her life when the sisters were reunited. The book is rich with descriptions of the Potteries and Paris with interesting insights into the lives of two very different sisters. It was a very enjoyable read, so said the majority of our group, who wondered why they had not read Bennett before. We also resolved to read more of the classics.
Further Arnold Bennett recommended reading: Anna of the Five Towns
The Tailor of Inverness by Matthew Zajac
It’s not often we all agree that a book is a good read but The Tailor of Inverness, which is a play as well as a book, was enjoyed by all present at Book Club and those not able to be there sent messages saying they’d enjoyed it. Firstly, The Tailor of Inverness is not at all like The Tailor of Gloucester, though some people could enjoy reading both.
The Tailor of Inverness is a true story written by a son who is a professional actor and director, and is determined after the death of his father to find out the truth of the missing years of his life, from 1939 to 1945. His father was born on a farm in Poland before WW2 and eventually builds a new life in the north of Scotland where he runs a successful tailoring business, marries a girl from Glasgow and raises a family.
We enjoyed the descriptions of the family holidays taken in alternate years in the 1960s when Matthew’s father loaded the car and they set off to travel by road and ferry from Inverness through communist East Germany to a village in Poland behind the Iron Curtain and stayed with Matthew’s uncle and aunt. Why didn’t they visit Matthew’s grandmother who was still alive and living in the village where her son had grown up? The explanation given at the time was that that district which was in Poland before 1939 was now in Ukraine so visits would not be permitted.
In the second part of the book Matthew transcribes the recordings his father made in his later years describing his early life in Poland and what he did in the war years. Some of us thought this was a bit disjointed as his father spoke broken English with both a Scottish and Polish accent. He was very selective when telling his story and covered up a lot. He spoke of serving in the Polish army when in fact Matthew found out he’d served in the Soviet army. In civilian life he made a living working with fabric but was indeed an expert in fabrication.
Matthew felt compelled to discover the truth of his father’s early life so the next part of the book describes his visits to Ukraine and the detective work he undertook. He meets a lot of distant relatives and a great deal of vodka is consumed but he’s not prepared for the shock of discovering that his father had been married in 1941 and that he had an older half-sister, a case of fact being stranger than fiction. He later traces this older half sister and they meet and take holidays with each other in each other’s countries.
Some felt the end was disappointing as the author doesn’t mention his mother and her feelings about her husband’s first marriage and there is little mention of Matthew’s British siblings.
Today the North East of Scotland has one of the highest concentrations of Polish nationals with three percent of the population of Aberdeen recorded as white Polish. Perhaps each of the men who settled there after the Second World War would have an interesting tale to tell, or to keep secret from their nearest and dearest.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
For our August meeting we read ‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins – a novel which, despite its length, we all enjoyed. It is a beautifully written page-turner. It was the first in the genre of ‘Sensation Novels’ i.e. it has shocking secrets that are gradually revealed. The genre dealt with the social anxieties of the Victorian Era particularly regarding identity and illegitimacy, and often involved a crime or deception.
‘The Woman in White’ has an interesting structure, in that there are multiple narrators, diary entries, documents and letters that explain the frightening events from different perspectives. Some voices are louder than others and not all the narrators are reliable.
For a book written 160 years ago, it is remarkably pertinent to current issues surrounding feminism, the treatment of mental health and social abuse of the weak in society. Not surprising then that the BBC showed a new adaptation of the book this Spring, with the opening episode being watched by 5.7 million viewers.
Inevitably we discussed the BBC adaptation:
….it’s use of flashbacks to tell the story
… the reasons behind the greatly changed appearance of one of the main characters
…the effectiveness of the changed ending in suiting a more modern audience
So... we thoroughly recommend the book. Even if you read it many years ago it’s worth a re-read BUT don’t watch the BBC DVD until you’ve read the book first!
Cover of First US Edition.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
This was the winner of several book awards in 2017-18. None of our members particularly disliked the book, although nobody raved about it either. It is the story of a woman who works in an office in Glasgow. She lives a simple, lonely life yet seems to be contented with her lot. She works all week, goes home on a Friday night to a pizza and drinks two bottles of vodka, and speaks to no-one until Monday morning. Things start to change when Raymond (also odd) comes into her life. Her strange relationship with her mother is a mystery until almost the end of the book. There are some humorous moments in spite of issues the book highlights like loneliness and mental illness. The story also highlights the importance of friendship and random acts of kindness.
We spent some time discussing the author, whose first novel this is. Gail Honeyman who gave up a place at university to become an administrator and wrote the novel in her spare time. She had entered the first three chapters into the Lucy Cavendish Competition run by Cambridge University and although she didn’t win, her work was seen by a top literary agent who took her on. She also belonged to a writing group which she feels helped her massively.
The book has been translated into 27 languages and has been in the UK's bestseller charts since it was published. Reese Witherspoon, producer of Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies has snapped up the option rights to the film - and reports have suggested she plans to take on the role of Eleanor Oliphant herself.
The overall verdict: not a classic by any means, but a reasonable (albeit easy) read.