Reading group reviews of Fiction Uncovered 2012 titles
5 October 2012 / 0 Comments
Portaferry Library Reading Group
Portaferry Library Reading Group in Northern Ireland read The Light of Amsterdam by David Park, here's their review:
The Light of Amsterdam is a beautifully written, gentle novel which follows three sets of people from Belfast who all happen, for different reasons, to go on a weekend trip to Amsterdam in December.
The novel introduces each set of characters in turn, providing details of their lives and how these have led to their current situations, insecurities and concerns. Alan, a divorced father of two, visited Amsterdam in his youth, and is excited to be going back to see Bob Dylan in concert, however, circumstances force him to take his troubled teenage son, Jack, with him. Karen is a proud single mother working in several menial jobs to make ends meet and to fund her daughter's wedding who has been persuaded to go to Amsterdam for her daughter's hen party. Insecure Marion and her husband Richard are having a well-earned short break from their garden centre business before welcoming their family home for Christmas, but they take ongoing worries and concerns with them.
The book is beautifully written, with the evocative and descriptive prose cleverly interweaving threads from the lives of each family as the characters cross each others' paths in the streets, parks and museums of Amsterdam. Each person has some sort of minor epiphany during their trip, questioning previously held certainties, facing unexpected challenges, pondering difficult decisions and providing some unexpected future opportunities, leading them to reevaluate their lives and situations as they return.
However, we feel there is a lack of a Northern Ireland or Belfast accent in the characters, meaning they were therefore perhaps less believable as they might have been had more local colour, in terms of manner of speech and dialect, been included. The ending, in the airport, is unforeseen and somewhat bizarre.
Unusually, David Park's writing does not have moralistic undertones, nor does he "take sides" in any of these decisions, something that is very rare in modern writing and, in our opinion, very positive.
Meeting David Park
We had a great night meeting David Park. He's a lovely man! David did a short reading from his book and we chatted about how he created it: how he decided what to write and how he developed his characters, the bits he felt were good and the bits he felt were weaker (we didn't always agree on these, which made for good craic). We also talked about how David became a writer - a fascinating story - and how he uses his own life experiences as the basis from which a story can develop. It was really interesting and the Portaferry Library Reading Group loved the evening and felt we need to do it again sometime with other authors if we can.
Herstmonceux Book Group
Herstmonceux Book Group in East Sussex read When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones. Here's their review:
The blurring of fantasy and reality epitomised this read which most of our group found very enjoyable and hugely readable. Some of the quicker readers who skimmed through, became a little confused by the end. Had the narrator Grace written the whole novel on one night? How much was in her imagination and what was real? Perhaps this is the point of the novel; it is up to the reader to make sense out of what may be the outpourings of a troubled mind.
The writing was flowing with rich description and a sense of foreboding. Characters were well drawn and the sense of the era fascinating with its depiction of women's role in society and the struggle for change. This book provoked much discussion in our book group regarding parenthood and the relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters. The stifling life for women of the time was well covered and the yearning for wild and free places made understandable and clear. Womens' relationship with men and their use of marriage as the only way to break free from parents, gave us all much to talk about, alongside the greater availability of educational opportunity as that century progressed.
Interestingly many of our group were happy to reread this book to get even more out of the story. The controlling personalities, the friendships and the various layers of relationships were of great interest, provoking many views. How differently this would be played out if set in the present day. The historical perspective at the turn of the twentieth century is a fundamental aspect of this book and an era of real interest to us all, filled with the push for change. Are those that rebel too much punished either physically, mentally or even subconsciously for their lack of acceptance of the norms and mores of the time? Is this what was happening to Grace?
Everyone enjoyed the descriptions of Wales, the Antarctic expeditions and the mountaineering of the time. Apart from one who found it "patchy and unfathomable", the group in all found it a stimulating and thought-provoking, well written read. We would definitely recommend it to other groups, particularly of the female gender! Well done to Susanna for a great read.
Meeting Susanna Jones
Our Book Bash in a Barn was all brilliant. Chair-toting and food juggling, about sixty people from nine different Wealden book groups rolled up across the fields. Rural readers did what they know best: an evening of talking, sharing, eating, drinking, laughing and listening. Our lovely Sussex authors, Juliet Nicolson and Fiction Uncovered author Susanna Jones, were delightful, giving insights into their lives, how they came to be writers, how their books emerged. Each book group shared their thoughts and ideas. Books were sold, signed and swapped. Quiz questions challenged. Local Librarians advised and were praised for their fantastic support. Medals were awarded (of the chocolate kind) and friendships were formed.
Books in the Bath
Books in the Bath in Sheffield read This is Life by Dan Rhodes. Here's their review:
Most of the Books in the Bath Reading Group wouldn't have chosen to read This is Life from the blurb: a nude man excreting on stage doesn't sound particularly appealing, although we loved the fold out cover with its depiction of a Paris street scene.
However, far from being rather gross, this is a quirky, tongue in cheek story full of slightly mad but engaging characters. It gently pokes fun at the art establishment, celebrates different kinds of love and remorselessly mocks the Sarkozys. Perhaps a little whimsical for some of us, others in the group found it laugh out loud funny, especially the first attempt at changing a nappy and the French pronunciation of the name Herbert. The shooting and casual abandonment of baby Herbert also caused some disquiet but is perhaps offset by the moving tribute La Machine is making every time he performs his stage show Life.
This book won't change your life but it will, for a little while, make it a whole lot brighter.
The Ab-Fab Professors from Plymouth read Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke by Peter Benson. Here is their review:
The book is set in Somerset, a county we all know well, and follows Elliot who gets mixed up in his mates scheme to steal, and sell on, a polytunnel full of cannabis plants.
Our book club members read widely and often have different views on books but this book split the group more than any other in our history. Half of the group really enjoyed the book, particularly liking the character of Elliot and his loyalty to his friend and enjoyed the descriptive style. The weaving of Somerset superstition relayed through Elliot's mum was highlighted as a strength, lending a west country charm alongside the darker story of drugs and corrupt Police. The other half of book club members didn't engage with the story as much and found they couldn't relate to the characters. The slowness which the first half enjoyed was one of the elements picked out as a weakness for the other half of the group.
We all remarked on the lyrical, almost poetic nature of the writing in places which sat well with the stifling hot summer of 1976. The ending was a source of much debate with the majority of the group moving towards wanting a more gritty ending, possibly involving a shotgun and rusty farm equipment.
This book makes a great read for book clubs as we found it led to a lively debate alongside reminiscing about our mis-spent youth - surely the perfect book club evening.
Meeting Peter Benson
Part of the Fiction Uncovered approach is to bring the eight selected writers together with readers and we were delighted when Peter Benson contacted us and offered to attend our next book club to discuss Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke. Being able to discuss the book with the author was a great experience for our small book club, and our discussion ranged from the writing process through to life experiences and inspirations. We felt it helped us move forward as a book club by developing our understanding of writing and providing a glimpse of how one author approaches their work.
Fortunately for us, Peter was not just an interesting author but was also great company and generously spent the evening with our book club. After much discussion around Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, Peter read to us from his new book Isabel's Skin which sounded fabulous, a poetic, gothic thriller. Can't wait to read it.
Duloch Wednesday Reading Group
The Duloch Wednesday Reading Group in Fife read Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone. Here are their individual reviews:
Lesley Collins - I loved this crime fiction book
I loved this crime fiction book; it was a quick and easy read. I felt a lot of sympathy for Billy the main character in the book who got caught on a roller coaster and could not get off! I liked the fact that it was set in Edinburgh as I know it quite well and could picture the exact areas. I liked the character of Rose, Billy's boss who took him under her wing and looked out for him. When Billy adopted the dog from the cat and dog home and named it after his dead mum this was very moving and you could tell he was a caring person and would not normally be involved in something like this.
The book makes you realise that in one split second a mistake can spiral out of control and take you on a journey that you don't want to make. In the end you have to own up or it will take over your life.
I would recommend this book and would like to read more of Doug Johnstone.
Shirley A Thomson - I rarely read crime fiction
I very rarely read crime fiction so was interested to see what I would make of this book. I was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It is often said that a sign of good writing is when the reader cares about the characters. Doug Johnstone has created characters that are believable and fascinating.
Billy Blackmore is an accidental criminal with a conscience which lends an interesting twist to the story. The plot was one that was easy to identify with which would have readers asking themselves what they would do if they found themselves in a similar predicament.
Having Billy investigate his own crime and the victim being part of the criminal underworld added a tension and some humour to the story. When Billy adopts the dog from the pound and names it after his dead mother we see a youthful vulnerability to him which endears him to the reader even more.
I found the relationships between characters weaved into this story unusual but interesting because of this; Billy and his relationship with the victim's wife, Rose and the detective on the case and also Billy and Charlie's relationships with each other and Zoe. Many outcomes were needed to satisfy the reader and the conclusion did not disappoint when our protagonist Billy was able to confess his involvement and put right all the subsequent wrongs.
Lesley Hargreaves - I loved the portrayal of the city
Driving home from an Edinburgh party over the limit Billy, knocks someone over, persuaded by his passenger girlfriend and brother to dump the dead body he drives home. Next day at work, Billy the rookie crime reporter is called to the scene of a jumper from Salisbury Crags. The victim turns out to be the pedestrian, a notorious Edinburgh criminal and it's Billy's job to get close to the widow.
What follows is a hard hitting fast paced crime thriller, not for the squeamish, with lots of pill pooping courtesy of Billy's medic brother, it is a story that fairly rattles along to it's slightly contrived conclusion.
As someone who has lived in the shadow of the Crags, and just a stones throw from the St Leonards Police Station I loved the portrayal of the city in this book, giving it a very authentic feel.
The pared down language gave it a punchy, rattling pace that made this a quick and easy read. A little unbelievable in places I charged through this book in a couple of days making it one of the better books I read this summer.
Dympna Wordie - Think of The Sopranos and you are there
The book was set in various locations around Edinburgh City Centre from the gangster's opulent mansion to its squalid flats, with Edinburgh Castle, Salisbury Crag and the Scottish Parliament buildings thrown in for reference.
The book has a modern day setting with mention of the new developments such as the city hospital and the parliament building yet it leaves the reader with a feeling of a city that is drab, grey, sleazy even 1960's about it too. The main character (writer?) is derisive of the tourist trade and the cultural aspects of the city.
Three people who are driving home from a night of boozing and drug taking - their regular night out in Edinburgh - suddenly knock down a pedestrian and are then faced with the dilemma of what to do. If they call the police or ambulance all three will be charged with drug offences and the main character Billy will face charges of DUI and manslaughter. It is the middle of the night, there are no witnesses so they have made a split second decision which will affect them for the rest of their lives. The consequences of their decision to move the man by the side of the road and scarper has implications for the man's family and when it becomes known that he is a gang lord it sparks off a tit for tat vendetta among the villains of the city. Billy, meanwhile has to report the incident as a crime reporter for a local newspaper. The bizarre, the coincidental and the downright laughable series of events arise from this original premise.
Billy, Zoe and Charlie whom we meet in the original incident sound like three errant teenagers out on a rampage causing as much damage as they can. We then find that they are much older and have degrees and responsible jobs. The gangland characters are the city's hard men. Pure spoof, stereotypes down to the gangland moll and the beloved dog. Think of The Sopranos and you are there.
My favourite incident in the book is the funeral of Frank when the solemnity of the occasion with the city's dignitaries meeting the gang land characters is waiting to spill over into the hilarious. With the death of Frank's dog Rebus at the church, attention now focuses on the animal and Frank is almost forgotten by those present. Both deaths are viewed with equal outrage.
We have all had to make difficult decisions in our lives. It is easy when you know you are deciding for yourself but if it involves others what then? What about living with the guilt of something you have done. That guilt from breaking your mothers favourite vase or crashing your brother's bike and not owning up stays with you. So how about a hit and run when fight and flight instincts take over, how do we react? Perhaps we don't know until we are tested? It also raises the issue of stereotyping - who were more evil the gangs with their threats and menaces or the 3 main characters?
I would recommend this book to others as a short, lively read set in Edinburgh where characters are placed in an unimagined position and have, in different ways, to face the consequences of their actions. It is easy to read in one sitting.
Melanie Foy - I enjoyed the first part of the book...
So, it's a poor man's Ian Rankin. A crime/noir novel set in Edinburgh with a flawed 'hero' as the main character. Does that sound familiar?
I enjoyed the first part of the book, and the Hit and Run part. It really highlighted that a split second decision can decide the rest of your life.
But as the story unfolds, I found the actions of the protagonist Billy quite confusing and did not understand the character's thinking. I found the idea that he would go down the path of drug-taking so quickly to be unrealistic. However, I am not familiar with the effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and his irrationality and strange behaviour may be a factor - though, I did think this meant that the author thought he had carte blanche on making Billy do anything in the book and this would not be questioned due to Billy's condition. I am interested to know how the other two flatmates seemed to go on as normal especially when the case was so high profile and constantly in the media. They had little or no guilt associated with the crime.
For me, the characters were not particularly well drawn and were often clichés. For example the dead man's wife Adele was vaguely written and unoriginal. I don't know any woman who wears a "scrunchie" since the 80s! All of the 'baddies' were drawn like this - I guess the author had no in-depth knowledge of the criminal underworld.
One exception was the dog Jeanie, who was either a very smart dog or Billy was projecting the nature (and name) of his dead mother onto the dog and even in death he thought she was protecting him. It was also a neat touch that the other dog was named Rebus.
The novel as a whole was quite pacey and I got to the end quickly and was satisfied that the correct action was finally taken by Billy. It ended at the right place - I did not need or want to know what happened to the characters afterwards. I'll stick to Ian Rankin in the future.
Lisa Penman - fast paced and exciting story
Doug Johnstone's Hit and Run is a story about a young reporter called Billy who knocks someone down with his car and is talked into not reporting it by his girlfriend and brother. They have been drinking and taking drugs that his brother stole from the hospital where he worked as a doctor. Billy gets drawn into the dead man's life by having to report on the story.
Throughout the book I found myself questioning the reality of the drug taking. I find it a little hard to believe that even a doctor would find it so easy to steal so many different drugs from a hospital. I also wondered why he would let his brother mix so many different drugs and not seek medical help sooner for his severe head injury. I found myself disliking his brother and girlfriend as they seemed to find it easy to forget the accident and seemed to be getting a little too close to one another. I felt they were more worried about Billy spilling the beans than for his wellbeing. I also didn't like the way he used their dead mother to try to control Billy.
I found it very interesting and it made me question what the driving forces for Billy's actions were throughout the story. How much of it was his guilt or did the head trauma and continuous drug taking affect the way he was acting. I can't help but feel that he may not have done the things he did if he were sober and well.
Overall I found the book to be an enjoyable great fast paced and exciting story.
Forest Hill Book Club
The Forest Hill Book Club in Southwark, London read Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer. Here's their review:
We've all locked ourselves out of the house at some point, but in this intriguing short story, a young woman's late night predicament assumes far greater significance; although a decade in London has already 'toxified' her, she discovers that the city has yet to do its worst.
Fischer's narrative voice is intimate and compelling, drawing us into the world of the profoundly disenchanted young. He captures the isolation of contemporary city life in a way that is fresh and shocking, and loaded with Kafkaesque wit.
The verdict from South London is that this slight tale is definitely worth a read, though the ending may leave you wanting.
The companion story, Possibly Forty Ships provoked a divided response, with the mix of violence and bathos delighting some, but failing to hit the mark for others. Personally I enjoyed the hatchet job on all those great Greek warriors, but have to agree that the young woman's demise is by far the greater tragedy.
Birmingham Mobile Library
The Birmingham Mobile Library book group read My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly. Here's their individual reviews:
Nicky - very readable
It starts in wartime London and moves through the loves and lives of several generations in the same family. You get to know the characters quite well and can see how history repeats itself over time. I liked the reserved character of Christopher. "He knew the names of all the birds and wild flowers" he spent quality time with Ruth taking her for long walks, sharing his love of nature with her when she first went to live with her grandparents. He was a quiet complex character, very private in his involvement of developing signals and radar in war time to his long term relationship with Peregrine.
The plot line is very credible and the storyline is shocking in parts due to the era it was set in. I would imagine that the sexuality of the characters was common of the times but very much hidden from public eye, due to high standard of morals at the time it was set. The book is very readable but so much more could have been drawn from the storylines.
The trials and tribulations of everyday life and the consequences of our actions can be reflected throughout this book, also people's ability to grow and have a stronger character as a person due to consequences beyond their control enhances strength of human nature. It highlights how people's moral standards have changed in a very short period of time, what is acceptable now as the norm was shunned and hidden even from the closest members of one's own family. The ending was in keeping with the book, everyone just getting on with life could have been more shocking and leaving you wanting for more...
Margaret S - difficult to put down
This novel tells the story of three generations of women in one family, starting in wartime London with Iris a beautiful and unconventional woman who sets off to the Middle East to look for her missing lover. Her young daughter Ruth is left behind to be looked after by her paternal grandparents who live in Malvern.
After the breakdown of Ruth's marriage she moves back to Malvern, living with her Uncle while her daughters Isobel and Emily live with their father, spending holidays with Ruth or Iris. The lives of Ruth, Isobel and family are fairly mundane but the book is never dull. The author writes really well and I found it difficult to put down.
Su has mixed feelings
I had mixed feelings about this book; I loved the intricate, detailed descriptions of places, things and atmospheres - very emotive and soothing read. However I found the structure of the book hard to follow; didn't really ever quite know who was who and lost the time thread often. At the beginning of each chapter I was at a loss as to who, when and where I was!
It took me a while to get into the book; it wasn't my sort of read so this may explain the above comments and my impatience. I did enjoy the overall feel of time and places and the characters of Rose, Isobel and Emily.
Pamela enjoyed reading something different
Interesting and emotional style of writing well written and good vocabulary. Vivid and descriptive you could visualise the scenes. The movement between generations keeps ones concentration and holds your interest. Some parts are sad and distressing. I usually read detective novels but found this readable and enjoyable.
Margaret H - great sense of home and family
Combining the narrative of the lives of several generations of a family, and their inner woes of love and loss, this book is deeply engaging. She crafts the language so beautifully that she puts her finger on just exactly how things feel.
The big traumas of life, desertion, abortion, infidelity are dealt with in an accepting way which makes all the events that unfold, quite believable, as the characters absorb the various blows that come their way. Life then flows gently along again to a new situation. Ironing out the hiatus of emotions that seem to me pretty mush how life is. I liked the ending with its great sense of home and family, no matter how disparate.
Watch out for the review of Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson by The Waterbeach Library Reading Group from Cambridgeshire - it'll be up on the site soon.
Have you and your reading group been reading any of the Fiction Uncovered titles? We would love to hear from you.
We look forward to reading your reviews.