W.I. BOOK REVIEW
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. The initial setting for the novel is a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. Cruelty and death are daily occurrences for those owned as slaves.
The main character George Washington Black often referred to as Wash is chosen because of his small stature to assist the plantation owner’s brother known as Titch in his scientific endeavours. Titch is an Abolitionist at heart which contrast with his brother’s endemic cruelty.
The storyline focuses on the construction of the perfect aerial machine, known as a cloud cutter. Titch’s plans are shattered by an unforeseen event necessitating escape from the island in the cloud cutter.
What follows is a series of adventures for Wash which encompasses travel and discovery to extreme areas of the world. During these years Wash encounters social and historical division as well as love and acceptance.
The scientific discoveries and exploration of the 19th century highlighted in the book bring about a new way of viewing the world. These are reflected in Wash’s own life as he emerges from life as a slave to the possible freedoms of life outside the plantation.
The book at times is a difficult read particularly when focussed on the brutal regime of violent treatment inflicted on slaves on the plantation. One member being unable to finish the book because of this element. The violence portrayed is undoubtedly graphic but does not appear to be gratuitous or sentimental. Instead, the main focus of the book is the theme of friendship and the bonds that tie human beings together.
The author Esi Edugyan has created a book which is an imaginative adventure and combines the contrasting elements of mankind.
W.I BOOK REVIEW FEBRUARY 2021
‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is the first novel by Delia Owens who is a wild life scientist. The author uses this knowledge for the setting of the book which is the marshlands of the North Carolina coast.
The central character is Kya, who as a young child is abandoned in the family home to look after herself. Her isolation and feral existence in the 1950s and 60s results in her developing an intimate understanding of her environment and the natural habitat.
Yearning for love Kya becomes involved with two young men from the local town. Tragedy subsequently ensues and Kya is charged with murder.
This book has been a major success for the author with lavish reviews using words such as evocative, heart-wrenching and mesmerising. It is certainly eminently readable and covers major topics and themes such as abuse, abandonment, loneliness, racism and ‘being different’.
The essence of the storyline focuses on Kya’s lack of social and educational attributes but her subsequent abilities to overcome these deficits and eventually succeed in the scientific community.
If this storyline is taken at face value the novel is thoroughly enjoyable and interspersed by amazing details and descriptions of the natural world. Human nature is portrayed with all its frailties and cruelty albeit highlighted with acts of kindness and compassion.
There are however many improbabilities as to how Kya not only survived but thrived with minimal guidance and support. Developing talents and skills in such areas as poetry, painting and cultivating a garden without tutoring felt a step too far for some readers. They considered that there was little depth or exploration to the major themes of the novel by the author.
This was without doubt a tale of triumph over adversity and had an interesting twist to the ending.
The January book club choice was ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini. The title of the book is taken from a 17th century poem written in praise of the once beautiful city of Kabul.
The book portrays the lives of two women who, through different circumstances, come both to be the wives of a man called Rasheed. Their lives are controlled by him and any freedoms curtailed.
The first wife Mariam is described as a ‘harami’ meaning an illegitimate child. She is brought up by her mother to expect nothing with regards to her future. This is despite having regular contact with her father a wealthy businessman.
Laila the younger second wife is brought up in a liberal and affluent household. This lifestyle however is abruptly terminated by a rocket attack on her family home.
The two women eventually form an alliance protect themselves from the brutal, sadistic beatings and humiliations perpetrated upon them by their husband.
The consensus of reviewers was that the novel dealt with the subject matter in a sensitive and thought provoking manner. The setting for the narrative is Afghanistan with the warring factions and eventual rule under the Taliban. This is however not the main thrust of the novel. The focus of the novel is the subjugation of women in this instance Pakistan and Afghanistan but which can be nuanced to many women worldwide.
As one reviewer highlighted the most dreadful part is the acceptance and expectancy with which women endure these social circumstances. In his notes at the end of the book the author explains that he wants readers to see and explore the lives of Afghan women and view them with compassion and empathy rather than just figures in black burqas.
The author deals with the subject matter of the novel in a sensitive way and the storyline is eminently readable. The novel illuminates the hopes and dreams of the two female characters and their desires for equality and education.
Other aspects of the social divide such as wealth distribution, power and religion also serve to illustrate the consequences and repercussions endured by women within these social environments.
The book does not shy away from the brutality of life sustained but does evidence the fortitude and resilience of women in dire circumstances when faced with violence and poverty.
A compelling book which ends in hope and joy and the power of love to overcome fear.
W.I BOOK REVIEW DECEMBER 2020
Naomi Alderman, the author of December’s book choice ‘Disobedience’, grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon, North London which is the setting for the novel.
The plot centres around Ronit’s return from New York to Hendon following the death of her father. She reunites with Esti and Dovid as the three characters try to re-establish their relationships. Interwoven within this are the rituals of Jewish culture and religion which impose strictures to everyday life.
The general consensus of the reviews offered is that this book was extremely interesting and introduced the complex culture of the Hassidic Jewish community. One reader who had lived in the area described them as being ‘of the big hats, ringlets and large families’. Another aspect she mentioned was of working in a company which had dealings with Jewish investors and many clients forbade work on Friday after sunset. At one point in the novel Esti is focussed on all activities being completed on a Friday by 6.18pm, the time of Shabbat.
The main character Ronit had felt oppressed for most of her life, hence the move to New York. From a feminist perspective the issues of discrimination and sexuality were woven into the themes of the book and illuminated the intractability of the Jewish culture. Whilst Ronit struggled to cope with her perspectives on life the Jewish community struggled even more with accepting change.
One reviewer considered that one of the most fascinating aspects concerning groups in society is how the great majority of members conform to the social norms of the group and how relatively few deviate from the norm. The Hassidic Jews in North London are clearly a minority group in terms of ethnicity and religion. To ensure their survival as a group it was important for them to stand together.
This theme was raised by another reviewer in terms of difference and acceptance – of others and ourselves. They were of the opinion that despite a façade it is not possible to completely ‘live a lie’. Only by facing these differences can a person be truly honest in relationships and with honesty comes respect and acceptance from others. The question was raised as to whether the characters were being true to themselves in the final decisions they made regarding how they lived their lives. They found it difficult to completely accept the ending of the book in terms of authenticity to the characters.
Another reviewer stated that they felt uncomfortable at one point in the book concerning the relationship of Ronit and Esti. However, Esti’s address to the synagogue concerning speech and how worlds are created with our words changed their attitude. They acknowledged how cleverly the author had woven the different aspects of the storyline.
This book certainly focussed on subjects and issues hitherto not explored in the book club and would have provided much material for discussion had meeting together in person been possible. ‘Disobedience’ certainly provided education and enjoyment which are not always good bed fellows.
W.I Book Review November 2020
This month’s book choice was ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry, an Irish novelist, playwright and poet. He was named Laureate for Irish Fiction 2019 – 2021.
The novel tells the story Willie Dunne, a young recruit to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War. It brings to life the divided loyalty that many Irish soldiers felt at the time following the Easter Rising in 1916.
As with all book club choices differing views were expressed on the novel. Barry’s poetic use of words was praised by one member with reference being made to hearing the gentle lilt of the Irish voice throughout the book. Another view given however was that towards the end of the book the writing technic was found to be too repetitive and lost pathos. This resulted in the reader skipping pages.
The book was found to be a challenge by some members of the group owing to the graphic descriptions especially those concerning the cruelty of war. One review given was that the book was almost too realistic to read. Within this context however the comradeship of war was evident and well depicted.
The personal life of the central character, Willie Dunne, was portrayed sympathetically and generally enjoyed. The unrest within Ireland was woven throughout the book and gradually changed Willie Dunne’s outlook on his homeland.
The historic position of Irish soldiers during the First World War and the Easter Rising in 1916 has not featured heavily in fiction writing and was found to be informative and thought provoking. Although a challenging book to read ‘A Long Long Way’ was felt to be a novel that combined fiction and history and in so doing expanded our repertoire of reading, which is the essence of a book club.
W.I. BOOK CLUB REVIEW
The glowing eulogies given on the inside of the cover of ‘The Family Upstairs’ by Lisa Jewell did not coalesce with all those in the book club who reviewed this month’s book choice.
The book was described as a psychological thriller but some members considered that the book had minimal content and was superficial in its treatment of the characters. The lack of depth and far fetching aspect of the plot concerning the cult were also cited in members’ reviews.
To counteract these views other members considered that the book was a ‘page turner’ and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The story line described as well paced and the characters interesting. The three main strands of the story coming together with an interesting twist at the end.
Although the concept of the cult was questioned as viable it was acknowledged that people are frequently swayed by powerful figures who are able to exert their influence often in dehumanising ways.
One member was able to identify the exact location in Chelsea of the house which featured in the plot because of family connections and this knowledge added to their enjoyment overall.
Most members appear to have gained some pleasure from reading this month’s book and would look for further titles by Lisa Jewell.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 25th March 2014
E M: Themes of fate, family life and renewal are brilliantly explored in the story of a life lived in wartime Britain.
A W: The premise of the book makes it sound really good but, it is just Groundhog Day in disguise. The book is clever, but it tries too hard to be clever. I enjoyed several of the episodes but would have preferred it if it has been written in a conventional way with different characters rather than one character with different lives.
The characters are one dimensional and I didn’t even care about what happened to Ursula because I knew she’d get to try again. During the time she’s married and abused even she doesn’t care.
It doesn’t matter what any of the characters do, because the alternative outcome is happening in another life.
L M: A good start – lost me in the middle, but came together at the end.
J M: On the whole an enjoyable read but, I was disappointed with the ending. I felt it went a bit flat.
M M: Having read this I feel the need to read again; she had so many lives to follow.
The Rosie Project by Graeme C. Simsion 12th May 2014
E M: From the opening sentence ”I may have found a solution to the life problem” leads into a fascinating story of everyday life for an autistic man in his search for love.
L S: Absolutely and utterly brilliant, totally absorbing, funny, infectious, compelling and sometimes quite emotionally challenging. I couldn’t stop making enough time to read the book. When trying to do other things the book would draw me back again. Can’t wait until September when the sequel is due.
R S: The Rosie Project was an easy, enjoyable read and a fascinating insight into the world of a person with Asperger Syndrome.
A W: I enjoyed this book. The fact that the principle character suffers from Asperger’s creates humour and pathos in equal measures.
L M: A good read – when I got to the middle I had to carry on reading to the end.
M M: Fancy living with a man like that!
Room by Emma Donoghue 23rd June 2014
RS: I would not have bought this book had it not been a book club choice. A few pages in and I was enjoying it but gradually I found I couldn’t put it down. The beauty of a Book Club – it takes you out of your comfort zone for a very enjoyable and thought provoking read.
LM: A compelling read – couldn’t wait to get to back to it. Made you think about what it would be like to be shut up somewhere for 5 years and not know anything else. At the end I felt he needed to go back to Room to get closure.
LS: I found this book quite obscure. Although I managed to read it completely I can’t say it was an interesting or fascinating read. I found it repetitive, quite unrealistic at times, as I felt the five years old boy adapted far too easily into normal life which was completely alien to him.
EM: Initially difficult to grasp the storyline but well worth perseverance. Illustrates how little we need to actually exist but questions on what level this is living. An excellent read.
AR: initially I found this book quite hard to get into as its not something I would choose to read. It has some quite unsettling elements. However once I’d finished it there was a lot to discuss and I found myself coming back to points after I’d finished reading Room.
29th June 2015
Prime Suspects by Linda La Plante
Easy to read crime novel with surprise ending. Better than anticipated and unable to easily identify culprit. Set in era before equality of the sexes and instant knowledge access. As with all organisations the police force had it's own culture which was then predominantly male orientated. Group discussion as to changes in social structure and technology since the book was written which we have personally witnessed.
3rd August 2015
The Bees by Laline Paull
Initially discouraged by the title but should have known better. An enthralling book which allowed the reader to become absorbed in the life of a bee hive, the characteristics of individual bees and the colony they make up. Human traits and social descriptions were easily identified and this made for fascinating read.
A very interesting read because the story was told by a bee. By the end of the book I was totally engrossed and I'm sure I'll look at bees in a whole new light from now on.
14th September 2015
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
A wonderful insight into the minutiae of life before the First World War of a middle class lady. Interesting to compare aspects of life then and now. The frequent task of letter writing as the main means of communication can be viewed in terms of our use of emails. The delivery of post was certainly speedier and more often compared to nowadays. The lady of the house then did not undertake any domestic duties and in our current society there is a growing sector of people being paid to do domestic work whilst the householder is otherwise engaged.
The style of the book is sometimes hard to follow as it is written in short exerts as a diary but worth the perseverance.