Books 2003

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Book for January:  Mothertime  by Gillian White 

The opening line of this novel is 'They took Mother prisoner at half past two on Christmas Day morning.' It's the story of the Townsend children and their mother, an ex-beauty, failed actress, divorcée and almost-alcoholic. On Christmas Eve, she staggers home, newly jilted and very drunk. She needs to be taught a lesson....... I won't spoil it for you be telling you how her children do this.  I really enjoyed reading this. It's incredibly descriptive and also very funny, despite the rather tragic themes: eg. divorce, alcoholism, child neglect. It also shows how easy it is to jump to conclusions about characters when only given one side of the story. 

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Book for February:  Blackberry Wine  by Joanne Harris 

Following on from the gastronomic theme of chocolate in her earlier novel, this is Joanne Harris's second book set in the French village of Lansquenet. The  blurb is as follows: "Jay Mackintosh is trapped by memory in the old familiar landscape of his childhood, more enticing than the present, and to which he longs to return. A bottle of home-brewed wine left to him by a long-vanished friend seems to provide both the key to an old mystery and a doorway into another world. As the unusual properties of the strange brew takes effect, Jay escapes to a derelict farmhouse in the French village of Lansquenet, where a ghost from the past waits to confront him, and the reclusive Marise - haunted, lovely and dangerous - hides a terrible secret behind her closed shutters. Between them, a mysterious chemistry. Or could it be magic?" 

This novel drew more attention and was read by more of the bookworms than any other we have read together. It proved to be extremely popular and we enjoyed a couple of excellent chats about it and the issues surrounding it. The blurb asks 'could be magic?' - well, the novel certainly was a magical one in every sense of the word. It left us with a nice warm glow - which had nothing whatsoever to do with any partaking of wine (blackberry or otherwise) during our reading of it! This is an extremely well-written book that evokes all the senses and leaves you with a strong sense of well-being when you finish reading it, and maybe also a yearning to emulate Jay's new way of life. 

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Book for March:  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 

The synopsis states: A not-too-distant future where happiness is allocated on a TV screen, where individuals and scholars are outcasts and where books are burned by a special task force of firemen. Montag, trained by the state to be a destroyer, throws away his can of kerosene and begins to read a book. The book was written in the 1950s and examines a society in which firemen create fires in which books are burnt, rather than putting them out. I was struck by the vision of Bradbury as regards to personal life, in which people appear to be pill-popping inadequate characters obsessed with interactive TV. For various reasons, at the time of writing this, we 'd only managed one chat about the book but it hadn't proved to be as popular as I was expecting. A number of people felt the characterisation to be too basic, with the exception of Montag. They would have preferred more about the young girl, Clarisse, who changes his outlook on life - she appears only very briefly. I did think that perhaps that was part of the point of the book but couldn't get anyone to agree with me! I would loosely categorise this as science fiction and felt that to be another reason for the basic characterisation - I don't generally enjoy science fiction much for that very reason.  

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Book for April:  The Mind Game by Hector Macdonald 

I hoped everyone would enjoy this one as it was my choice. I read it when it was first published and have recently listened to it on unabridged audio (highly recommended) and had no problem with reading it again prior to our chat. It's the story of an Oxford psychology student who agrees to become involved in an experiment to provide data for the study of emotion science. Much of it takes place in Kenya and the writer has the ability to take you there with him. Having spent my honeymoon there, it did bring back some lovely memories, but fortunately my stay was considerably less eventful than our hero's! There are lots of twists and turns and it does raise many questions about human emotions. Those who read it did indeed find it a very good read, although when we came to discuss it, we were all slightly bemused by all the twists and had forgotten some of them. We had an interesting discussion of the issues raised at the end of the book, relating to emotions and freedom of thought - that's all I can say! 

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Book for May:  High Rise by J G Ballard

This is an excellent novel from one of my favourite writers. Written in the 1970s, it explores what happens when 'normal' society breaks down - themes that he takes up again in his recent books, Super Cannes and Cocaine Nights. It's not everyone's cup of tea and might make some readers feel uncomfortable - there is an element of violence, so common in Ballard's work. But it's a fascinating study and the group had mixed views on it. Not everyone wanted to finish it because of the content, and none of us felt we would have remained in the high rise once trouble started. But that's easy to say when on the outside looking in...... 

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Book for June:  Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I knew nothing about this book except what I have read in reviews and on the blurb and the fact it was made into a film (which I haven't seen). I think Q Magazine probably has the most intriguing comment: "Grady Tripp is an over-sexed, pot-bellied, pot-smoking, aging wunderkind of a novelist now teaching creative writing at a Pittsburgh college while working on his 2000 page masterpiece, Wonder Boys. When his rumbustious editor and friend Terry Crabtree arrives in town, a chaotic weekend follows, involving a tuba, a dead dog, Marilyn Monroe's ermine-lined jacket and a squashed boa constrictor."  That's a fair description but I confess the actual book didn't enthrall me at all. I found it pretentious and pointless and although it was an easy enough read and I was able to read it without too much conscious effort, ultimately it was a waste of time for me. Most other bookworms agreed although the one who wasn't expecting to like it, found it entertaining and amusing. I won't be reading it again, nor am I tempted to try any of his other books - which may well be my loss. 

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Book for July:  The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox

This next book is by Elizabeth Knox and sounded better than it was, at least, that was the general consensus although a couple of people enjoyed it more. Set in 19th century France, a young vintner meets an angel in his vineyard. They meet annually - in the meantime, village life goes on - but life in general changes with the coming of the Napoleonic wars and increased scientific knowledge which alters traditional viticulture. I found it fascinating at first but it then seemed to drag - possibly because I read it on holiday when I had little time to read, thus it took me almost 2 weeks of 'bitty' reading. I got confused with the characters and their relationships - and I think wasn't really drawn to any of them so didn't much care about what happened to them. This is described by The Times as A beautifully written exploration of the inexplicable, into which is woven an all-too-human chronicle of burning desire, violence, murderousness, bitter jealousy, curiosity, sexual deviation, shame and a fidelity of a sort. I guess that's a fair assessment, just not really my cup of tea.

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Book for August:  The Siege by Helen Dunmore

This is a novel of war-time Leningrad, the story of the battle for survival of two pairs of lovers, described as A Tolstoyan epic of love and war: life and death........... she writes beautifully. (Sunday Telegraph). I found this book lived up to expectations and despite the very grim subject matter - all the more harrowing because it was based on fact - it was a joy to read. It's set during the siege of Leningrad in which over a million civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers died, mainly from starvation. The siege lasted for nearly 900 days, but the novel only covers the first winter so we are left wondering if the survivors from this winter would in fact survive the next. The characters are very interesting and their resilience - and otherwise - is clearly depicted. I never felt anyone was being glamourised or was an unrealistic portrayal. The description is vivid and I felt cold and hungry in support of the characters (well, OK, so I was on a diet and that helped!)  But when you consider I read this during a heatwave, you can see how persuasive a writer is Ms Dunmore. Not all bookworms agreed with me - one or two declined to read it, preferring their reading to give them some light relief from the pressures of everyday life. And another wasn't happy with the ending - although I'm not quite sure what would have made a better one. All in all though, highly recommended.

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Book for September:  The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The book is about a literary detective, Thursday Next, who is trying to track down a villain who has been kidnapping characters from novels and holding them to ransom! Most bookworms really enjoyed it but I found it rather irritating - too many laughs for me, so I've concluded I really do prefer miserable novels, which is perhaps a little disconcerting. What I found really odd is that the novel is set in Swindon, a town in Wiltshire that I visit most weeks (business, not pleasure!) It was a clever book, and a knowledge of some literature is an advantage, especially of Jane Eyre, since much of the action takes place when Mr Rochester has been kidnapped. It is an ingenious idea - and there are follow-ups - but I won't be reading them. 

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Book for October:  Northangar Abbey by Jane Austen

I thought it time we had a classic and picked this one as it's quite short and I haven't read it before. According to Amazon, it's 'Portraying social life in fashionable Bath and centred around Catherine Morland, this novel ridicules the popular tales of romance and terror and contrasts with these the normal realities of life'. Not a bad description - it's very much 'of its time' and yet I felt sure Ms Austen was sending up not only the gothic horror genre, but also the people of the time and of the middle class. I really don't know if it was intentional or not. Most of us enjoyed reading it although we did deduce it was really a 'woman's book' - in fact it did conquer one member's lifelong fear of reading Austen!

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Book for November:  Embers by Sandor Marai

This is Amazon's synopsis: 
A castle at the foot of the Carpathian mountains in the 1930s. Two men, inseparable in their youth, meet for the first time in forty-one years. They have spent their lives waiting for this moment. Four decades earlier a murky, traumatic event - something to do with a betrayal, and a woman - led to their sudden separation. Now, as their lives draw to a close, the devastating truth about that moment will be revealed. EMBERS is a masterpiece - an unforgettable story of passion, fidelity, truth and deception.

Our reactions to it varied but I'm not sure that anyone was as enthusiastic as the above. Personally I found it rather dull and I wasn't the only one. I suppose it's quite a 'worthy' book but it really did lack excitement, although it was well written. I think the kindest thing I can say is that it was mercifully short!

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Book for December:  The Children of Men by P D James

I read this some years ago and enjoyed it very much - this is a departure for PD James and she handles it well. We didn't get much chance to discuss this properly due to Christmas commitments but those of us who read it enjoyed it. However, I did post up some comments and a list of discussion points in the forum so reproduce them here: The novel is set in 2021, no child having been born for 25 years, so the human race is facing extinction with a population growing old and with no hope for the future. Britain is ruled by Xan, Warden of England, and the novel centres on his cousin Theo, an academic and erstwhile member of the Council. A chance encounter with a young woman puts Theo into conflict with his cousin and he becomes involved with a group of protesters. I don't want to give anything away in case others haven't read it yet, but would like to pose the following questions, which could be considered with or without reading the novel:

1) Is it conceivable (no pun intended) that the human race could become infertile? I think it possible but rather fanciful to imagine this would happen at the same time all over the world. However, a final year of births is much more convenient and dramatic for storytelling purposes.

2) Are we really so far from legalising voluntary euthanasia as in the quietus (communal death by frowning)? I thought this is a particularly horrible way of people ending their lives and it clearly wasn't as voluntary as imagined. However, given the scenario of fewer and fewer resources to care for the elderly and sick, is some sort of euthanasia a sensible solution to the problem? Is the promise of financial reward ethically moral?

3) For readers only - how feasible is the relationship between Theo and Julian? How important is the fact that Julian was accidentally given a boy's name? What does it signify? Personally I'm not sure other than to wonder if ultimately the continuation of the species is a male prerogative.

4) Religion is a feature of many of P D James books. How effective is its use in the novel? Could it have been written without any mention of religion or is it such a fundamental importance when the 'chips are down' that it was unavoidable?

5) The novel was written over 10 years ago - how far down this road have we travelled in those 11 or so years? How prophetic was P D James when she wrote this?
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it does give much food for thought. With the pension panics and statistics showing the larger proportion of older people in future years, should we be thinking harder about population trends? Women are leaving childbirth later and later, so much so that many leave it too late to conceive. Should we heed the warnings given in this book?

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