Talking about books

 ~ at home


Our two reading groups – based in Much Wenlock and Craven Arms – can no longer meet but that’s no reason to stop talking about books!   I invite you to share your reading with us – maybe a photo of your book, and why you’d like to recommend it?

Here’s a picture of my (rather messy) book basket – this sits next to my reading sofa and I dip into it as my mood changes.

We’ll miss the human contact (and the home-made biscuits!) but let’s hope this virtual sharing of books will  keep us going until we meet again …

I have – at last – started on the Louise Penny mystery series, kindly lent me by a friend,  set in Quebec and following the cases of Inspector Gamache.  My plan was to alternate them with other reading so that I didn’t just binge-read the entire series (13 books and counting …) but having finished the third in the series, my friend and I are no longer able to swap books so I’m having to wait it out before continuing.

The books are beautfully written, and they do for Quebec what Donna Leon does for Venice: there is lots of delicious food and drink; relationships develop and deepen and Insepctor Gamache loves his wife of many years standing – and she loves him back!

I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this series again – when all this is over …

The Lizard Cage is based on the true stories of many Burmese political prisoners, and then told as the  story of one man, a song-writer, who is seven years into a twenty year sentence of solitary confinement.  The conditions in which Teza endures his incarceration are brutal in the extreme.  Daily degradations spiral ever downwards.  The guards have,  in the main,  for reasons of their own survival within the regime of the institution, lost whatever humanity they might have once had.  The prisoner has barely enough food to stay alive, and supplements his diet by catching lizards and grubs within his cage.  It is awful.  Awful.  And yet – even in this most depraved and inhuman of settings, small miracles can happen.  One of the guards still maintains some intelligence and empathy – even though he can barely show it.  And there is a child: the orphaned son of a prison guard, he literally has nowhere else to live when his father is killed, and so he ‘builds’ himself a shack in the prison and lives by his wits.  He is seven years old.

There is no happy ending.  But what Karen Connelly somehow conveys, is the absolute invincibility of the human spirit. Of the power of meditation and of faith. And above all, the love of one human being for another. It is deeply moving and unforgettably inspiring. 

From Christine:

I’ve just been re-reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – and found it even stranger than I remembered. There are references to phrenology (when Jane  analyses the lumps and bumps on faces, in particular of Mr Rochester, who she spends a lot of time looking at); a very Byronic unsettling hero; the disturbing mad lady in the attic story, and a strange first person voice that is in the end, I think, quite arrogant.
I know Jane Eyre is lots of people’s favourite, but for me the sexual politics are pretty uncomfortable.
It’s a massive achievement, I think, in that Bronte has created a character who says she is not very likeable, and I didn’t very much like her myself by the end of the book.
It seemed to me re-reading it to be a story of self-justification, for happiness perhaps with a man who made very poor moral choices. When I was young I hated that Mr Rochester was blinded before he could be a lover (I’d forgotten that he has his left hand amputated too) but this time on reading it I thought Jane Eyre the character liked that very much.
I don’t really have any understanding of the religious aspects of the book, which would have been second nature to Bronte as the daughter of a C of E vicar, and I’m sure I don’t understand the significance of  the interlude with the Rivers family, except as a slightly creaky plotting solution (so she can get her inheritance).
I also on this reading found the banter that passes between Jane and Mr Rochester (or ‘my master’, as she refers to him), either early or late in the book, pretty unpleasant, and very much at odds with Jane Eyre the character’s assessment of her true love.
So it’s still on my list of not favourites!
I am also dipping in and out of ‘No Dig Gardening’ by Charles Dowding, which is a favourite because of his approach to the soil, and also because it reduces hard labour!

I’ve just watched the National Theatre streaming of Jane Eyre and really enjoyed it, so I’m now reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys which is about Rochester’s first wife, and then I’ll read Jane Eyre again – I’ll let you know how I get on!

Three from Hilary:

As you can see from the cover, it is rather an old book and I was expecting it to feel dated but not at all. I loved this book. Wonderful descriptions of Burma, brilliant characterisations and I guess it rang true for the current times – namely that unless we work as a community in hard times, things will fall badly apart. It is a description of a group of people fleeing the Japanese during the invasion of Burma and what happens to them. Wonderful.

Aardvark Books hand-delivered this to me as Hilary’s email had reminded me how much I loved it, some thirty years ago!

After your rave reviews I had to read it and agree with you. It was very, very good.
I shall have to read the new one.

 NB – note from Anna: this is, so far, the most recommended book from the Wenlock  group!

I have mentioned these short stories at a previous meeting and I continue to read one here and there. Wonderful descriptions of social hypocrisy in the author’s brilliant laconic style. The stories can be funny, moving but they make you wince on occasions. I have just reread The Bargain again (third time in 6 months!) which is superbly crafted and perfectly pitched. Jane Austen would have enjoyed a dinner party with Truman Capote.

There you go.
I have just finished A Town Like Alice which I had never read but which has also been on our shelves forever but I am not recommending it. Very dated and really uncomfortably racist now.
I shall view the blog with interest as I could do with new recommendations.

From Marian:

My recommendation is Who is Tom Ditto? by Danny Wallace, a second novel by an author who I gather is better known for humorous non-fiction. I picked the book up second-hand on the strength of its title at an attraction.

The protagonist is a male radio newsreader in his thirties and the story opens with a note from his girlfriend:

I have not left you. But I am gone.
Please just carry on as normal.
Love always.

I found it quietly amusing throughout and was intrigued by the phenomenon of ‘following’ that it examines. Characters copy other people’s actions (literally – going where they do, doing what they do, buying what they buy) for different reasons. I found the reasons of the female lead (not the girlfriend or love interest) rather touching.

The main character came alive vividly for me. I felt his bafflement and subsequent frustration. When he appeared to be letting himself be controlled again late in the book, I was willing him to find some backbone. 🙂

So, all in all, a diverting read.

I also read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, having seen The Starless Sea that I enjoyed so much compared with it, but didn’t have the same magical experience with it and Pompeii by Robert Harris, which I found interesting.

Three from Philip …

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. A short book, beautifully written, a love story on and following Mothering Sunday 1924. No spoilers, just recommended.

Somewhere Becoming Rain by Clive James. Perceptive essays about Philip Larkin, the title being the last words of arguably his best poem The Whitsun Weddings.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming. A wonderful thought-provoking story which raises issues of secrecy within a family and community.

I have just finished Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, which I have found to be a wonderful distraction from the present distressing developments. In some ways there are parallels to our current difficulties though. It’s the story of a ten year old boy called Noel who, at the start of the book, is living in London with his elderly godmother just before the Second World War. He is a very bright boy and she is an elderly eccentric, and they get on famously. Sadly she has dementia and dies, and after an unpleasant stay with a courtesy “aunt and uncle” is evacuated to St. Albans. He is billeted with Vee, a woman who never has enough money for the better things in life, but who is prepared to bend the law in an attempt to get some. The book follows their relationship.

The story is funny and moving and rushes along at a good pace. I think it’s a good antidote at the moment.

                                                                                                                          from Sue

From Judith A

The most thought-provoking book I’ve read recently is An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn, published in 2017. Daniel is a Classicist who teaches in a college in New York; his father, Jay, now in his eighties, is a scientist and an engineer who worked his way up after an impoverished childhood, finally to become a professor. Jay gave up the classics in order to concentrate on mathematics but has the feeling that he’s missed out. He asks to sit in on his son’s seminars with eighteen-year-olds who are about to study Homer. Father and son have never understood one another, so this is a difficult endeavour for both of them. Odysseus and Telemachus, father and son, are similarly estranged, so the twin themes in Homer’s epic and the contemporary lives of Jay and Daniel are paralleled. Daniel is clearly a gifted teacher, and we learn about his teaching methods, and his belief that there is a genealogy of successive teachers and pupils working on the same texts that stretches back at least into the Middle Ages. At the same time he tries to find out about Jay’s real childhood, as distinct from the stories he tells about it, so there is an element of detective work. The two of them go on a cruise in the Mediterranean, calling in at all the places mentioned in The Odyssey, so another element, a travelogue, is added to the themes. All these elements play off each other and as you read you feel as if you are on a voyage of psychological discovery yourself.

So now I’m beginning Father and Son by Edmund Gosse first published in 1907. My copy from a charity shop is old and browning, itself published in 1949. I hope the pages hold together long enough for me to finish it!

I’m so pleased we are continuing book discussions remotely.


  1. Philip

    Advice for life from Inspector Gamache, if you can admit the following:

    I don’t know
    I was wrong
    I’m sorry
    I need help

  2. Marian

    I might give The Jacaranda Tree a go, as I enjoyed his Fair Stood the Wind for France.

    • Anna Dreda

      I’m looking forward to reading this, too!

  3. Hilary

    Hello Marian,
    You very kindly gave me your copy of Wakenhyrst at one of the sessions as my daughter Sarah is such a big fan of Michelle Paver. I thought you might like to know that she loved it. She thought it was very atmospheric and that the descriptions of the fens were marvellous. She couldn’t put it down.I also read it and enjoyed it too, probably not as much as her but that is because the gothic horror genre is not quite my thing. Anyway you had two very satisfied customers so thank you very much.

    • Marian

      Thanks for letting me know, Hilary. I’ve just finished a book I really disliked (‘I’ll Sell You a Dog’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos), so I hope my next pick will be luckier!

  4. Sue Whiston

    I will have to read the Sebastian Barry. With so many recommendations I am hooked. I should probably also try the Louise Penny series as I love Donna Leon and it sounds similar.


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