A lot of reading was done in March. In fact we had almost everyone present at the meeting so lots of talk too.

Being read this past month and brief comments of :

Confessions of Edward Day
by Valerie Martin: A number of us have read and very much enjoyed Property by the same author which won the Orange Prize. This relatively short but exceptionally well written novel is narrated by the wife of a plantation owner who is a brutal master to his slaves and a pretty awful husband too. From all accounts Edward Day would appear to be a much easier read, a romp and entertaining. Perhaps it is good Property was read first!

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroud: this year's Pulitzer Prize winner. Bleak but a very good book.

Return to Paris by Colette Rossant: the second book in a memoir series, the first being Apricots on the Nile and the third being The World in My Kitchen. We read the first one some years ago and very much enjoyed it. This one takes us to Paris where Colette was taken by her mother at the conclusion of Apricots. Just as enjoyable and interesting as the first one, with delicious sounding recipes.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: this is another author we have read a lot of over the years and this is his latest novel. Very credible, totally compelling and riveting says the first reader of this.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay: Beautifully written emotional tragedy

The Life and Death of Laura Friday by David Murphy: After I gave this a great review (see blog) someone else finally read it and also loved it. Very funny with good movie potential she said!

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling: Very weird, strangely attractive and compelling, vivid portrayal of life in 1850s London.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: This is the woman who wrote The Time Traveller's Wife which had mixed reviews in our group. This latest does not appear to be popular at all!

The Blue Notebook by James Irvine: This was mentioned in November book club notes. Slowly more people in the group are reading it, same excellent reviews, because it is such harrowing subject matter, it is hard to read and really enjoy!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Last year's Man Booker prize winner. All about Thomas Cromwell who served Henry VIII until his head got chopped off. By all accounts heavy going.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulkes: This author's latest novel, great story and very relevant.



The hype surrounding this book, and any book for that matter that people start raving about, made me nervous about starting this. SO many people I know have read this, the reviews have all been very praise worthy and now of course it is out at the movies. I wasn't nervous about reading this just because of all the hype though. The few books I have read by Scandanavian authors have always been gloomy, dark, set in the middle of winter, matter of fact and generally hard work to get through. With the exception of Pippi Longstocking of course.

This book however has it all, apart from all the murder and blood and gore of course that seems to pepper any decent blockbuster nowadays! It has a great plot line that goes back and forth over fifty years or so, exceptionally well drawn characters, all of them, not just the major characters. The main half dozen characters are all incredibly interesting and complex people, and yet very realistic, even the girl of the title. Their relationships with each other, even the ones that are not healthy or good, are well portrayed and again very realistic in the way they relate to each other.

Plenty has been written about this book and the others in the series so I will say little about the plot other than an investigative journalist is commissioned to solve a long standing disappearance and finds himself more and more drawn into the complexities of the family he is investigating. His assistant is the girl of the title, damaged but brilliant and together the mystery is solved.

The book is written as a classic whodunnit, with the odd red herring thrown in. The story does travel quite a bit around Sweden and the reader gets a wonderful travelogue of the country and the climate as the story unfolds. After a gently paced beginning, the story picks up and becomes an absolute page turner, right to the last page. Can't wait to start the second one in the series.

THE OUTCAST by Sadie Jones

What a depressing, sad and sorry bag of bones this book is. I understand it was originally conceived as a screenplay, maybe that should have told everyone something that it didn't get further than that. But I also see that it is to become a movie directed by the guy who directed Shakespeare in Love. I really can't visualise how that will turn out, although movies have been made of much less. And that reminds me, even though the blurb on the back sounded a bit suspect, I took it to read because I knew it was being made into a movie. Big mistake.

Because, really not a lot happens in this novel. It has a busy sounding plot, with young Lewis Aldridge, growing up in post-war England in a suffocating satellite/commuter town of London where appearances count for everything. At the age of ten Lewis's lively, attractive and loving mother drowns in a river - the perils of drinking and swimming - and this changes his life quite dramatically. His emotionally retarded father, Gilbert, swamped by grief, cannot deal with his own grief, let alone that of his son. He quickly remarries, and life returns to 'normal' as Gilbert knows it, but of course not for Lewis. From this point on the downward spiral of Lewis's life takes off. Increasingly alienated from the people in his closed, insular community who quite simply don't understand him and don't want to, he becomes more isolated, takes to drinking, self harming, visiting a prostitute, ends up committing arson and goes to prison for two years, where by all accounts he was actually quite happy.

The second half of the novel focuses on his return to the town and to his father's and stepmother's house. Nothing has changed of course, and it is as if he has never been away. Nothing has changed in the neighbourhood either. The other main character in the book is Kit, a girl a few years younger than Lewis who comes from an equally dysfunctional family headed by a man who is a master in domestic violence but hides behind the enormous respectability of being the richest man around. There are some truly lovely people that live in this small community! Kit has always been desperately in love with Lewis, probably because she recognises a similarly damaged soul. Now that Lewis is 19, and Kit 15, they begin to notice each other, surprise surprise, and this is the main focus of the last third as they deal with the chaos of their lives.

But the whole thing is so depressing and monotonous and grey and gloomy. Perhaps Ms Jones is trying to depict life in the straightened and controlled times of the 1950s, which she does actually succeed in doing. Her writing is quite descriptive and very visual but it has so many 'ands' in every single sentence. I read another review of this book and the reviewer also commented on the excessive use of 'and'; apparently it is intentional to illustrate the monotony of everything. She succeeds here too. Reading it reminded me very much of Atonement by Ian McEwan, but way way more happens in the latter, plus being a better story, better characters, and you can see it becoming a movie, sad ending notwithstanding. I have no idea how this story will be turned into 90 minutes minimum of entertainment. I won't be going! The only reason I finished this book is because I have to review it for book club.

THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer

Fifteen years ago the author visited the Tugendhat house in Czechoslovakia which is the house upon which this novel is based on. Designed by Ludwig Miles van der Rohe it is considered an icon of modern architecture. So highly regarded is it that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the information available the house in this book would appear to be a replica of the real house and is the one centre piece constant throughout the novel in a world of chaos and disintegration.

Despite the historical backdrop which encompasses the Nazis, war, communism and all the rest it, the house remains, a symbol perhaps of the indestructibility of the human spirit and hope for the future. This is primarily a story of optimism. Throughout the story all the characters are looking to improve themselves and their lives, always looking forwards. And it follows, for once, that for a story about war and destruction it does actually have a happy ending.

Liesel and Viktor (who is Jewish) Landauer commission the house to be built in 1929. Its construction coincides with the pregnancy and birth of the couple's first child, symbolic of the new life as a family within the walls of the house. The plot follows the well known history of the time with the taking over of Austria and then Czechoslovakia by the Germans, the refugees who arrive in the locality, anti- semitism and how it all affects this family, their friends and associates. The family escape to Switzerland in 1938, leaving the house to its fate, and after a hurried journey across Europe in around 1942, finally finish up in the USA.

The house meantime lives through and survives to the modern day, and at the end of the story becomes the focus for the conclusion. The glass room is the main living room of the house, and encompasses the whole front expanse of the building with huge window panes of glass and an onyx wall. So much of the critical elements and events of the story take place in this room.

This is a fabulous piece of story telling, giving a slightly different take on the thousands of novels that have come out of the horror of the WWII, the Nazis, the holocaust, Communist rule, and subsequent breakdown. All that stuff happens in the background, the focus in this story is the people to whom it is happening to. There is some beautiful writing, without being overly sentimental, just a little mind you! I did find some of the characters a bit flat though, not enough depth or roundness to them. With the exception perhaps of Hana who is Liesl's best friend. Although she is not one of the main characters of the story, she certainly comes across as the most complex and interesting.

A most worthwhile book, that does take a little while to get going - till about page 75 from memory, but then the switch for me suddenly came on and I was away with it.


A few years ago in the book club we read a fabulous biography of the famous Mitford sisters. Aristocratically born early in the 20th century, the five sisters came to adulthood between the wars where they literally took the world by storm. Nancy, the oldest, became a writer of biting satire towards her class, Unity and Diana were fascists - Unity in cahoots with Hitler and Goebbels, and Diana marrying the very well known fascist Sir Oswald Mosley who ended up going to prison for his troubles; Jessica became a journalist and went off to report on the Spanish Civil War not on the side of the fascists; and extraordinarily the youngest, Deborah, became the Duchess of Devonshire! And what is more they were all incredibly beautiful, rich, opinionated and famous.

So any writings that come out of this mix are bound to be interesting if nothing else. Along with The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate takes a satirical view of upper class society at a certain point between the wars - before the stock market crash of 1929 and after. The story is narrated by Fanny Logan, an 18 year old girl who lives with relatives due to her parents either being incapable or unable to care for her. Money however is no object! In this particularly wealthy area of England the Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly, also 18 live. Recently returned from being Viceroy in India, they are totally full of themselves and their position so high up the food chain. Except for Polly who really could not care less, and certainly does not want to be married off to the first available suitor as her mother wishes. Until Polly takes control of her own life of course, seriously threatening her mother's esteemed position in society, and forcing Lord Montdore to disown his only child. This results in the arrival of the male heir, Cedric, from the colonies of Nova Soctia and the upheaval he so delightfully foists on this small corner of English landed gentry.

As one expects the plot dances along, with sparkling and witty dialogue and gorgeous characters. The stereotypes abound - Lady Montdore is a monster, Polly is the beautiful, angelic, dumb blonde, there are mad and lecherous uncles and dotty aunts, absent minded professors, and of course the completely foppish and outrageous Cedric.

A lot of fun and easy to read. But I don't feel I need to read another of her books.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

This recently published book has taken the US by storm. Ms Stockett is an excellent story teller but in taking on a tricky subject such as the social structure of 1960s Mississippi, just as the civil rights movement is getting started she is setting herself up for all sorts of fallout and retribution. I almost always read the Acknowledgments/background notes pages written by the author before I start reading a book and this book has superb background information to her novel. Ms Stockett grew up in a house that had a black maid, and like the white children in this story, she had the same maid looking after her for most of her childhood. These maids would either stay with the family until retirement or death, or would move onto another family with young children. As you can imagine the bond that develops between the white families and the black staff is extremely strong, as is the huge variation in the way the staff are treated by their white employers. In this novel the relationship focus is on the white women employers and the black maids.

The main characters are a young white woman, Skeeter Phelan, who has recently returned to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi after being at college with dreams of becoming a writer and getting out of Jackson. She has to deal with her mother's determination to get a ring on her finger. Aibileen is a black woman who I guess is in her 50s, now onto being nanny to her seventeenth white child and giving this child all the love and self esteem that the mother seems unable or unwilling to do. Then there is Minny, a younger black maid with a drunk abusive husband and five children, and a mouth on her that gets her into all sorts of trouble. Skeeter begins to write a book anonymously documenting the stories of the black maids in the town, and thus begins to walk a very fine line between the white-lady-expected-behaviour-line and giving a dignified voice to the not very dignified lives of the maids. Naturally the two collide in spectacular fashion!

So beneath the very serious message there is humour and love and graciousness. But at the core of this book is the tragic legacy left by slavery in the American South and the enormous rifts that arose between human beings of simply different skin colour. Not confined just to 1960s America either.