Wednesday, 28 February 2007


AUTHOR: Peter Boxall (General Editor)


NOTES: This is a great book for “dipping into” rather than reading from start to finish. One of the members of the reading group I belong to brought it along to one of our meetings and I knew I had to buy my own copy. Like many people I had to do a count of how many of the 1001 books I had actually read – it was about 140. So I have a long way to go……

However I don’t think the purpose of the book is to spur us on to competitive reading or to demoralise us if we haven’t read a lot of the books selected. What this book is great for is to alert you to works you may want to read at some time in the future but have simply never got around to – such as To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf or The Idiot by Dostoevsky (both sitting on my bookshelves gathering dust).

It is also a good reminder of some books read long ago – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, Germinal by Zola and The Razor’s Edge by WS Maugham.

Obviously any list of this type is contentious and we all bring our own prejudices to such a venture. (No William Boyd? Shame on you! Six Margaret Attwoods….hooray)

And it is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of writers and original book covers.


AUTHOR: Donna Tartt


DATE READ: October 2006 (audiobook)

NOTES: Harriet is haunted by the childhood death of her brother Robin and vows to find and punish the murderer. Set in a Mississippi summer – you can feel the heat and dust. The maid Ida Rhew suggests perpetrator is local “white trash” Danny Ratcliffe and Harriet begins to follow him and his brothers. Danny and his elder brother are drug dealers and another brother Eugene is a trainee preacher, hoping to learn to use poisonous snakes in his sermons.

Aided by her friend Hely she breaks into Eugene’s house and the snakes are released. However the brothers see her and from then on are aware of her presence. She sees Danny going up the ladder to a disused water tower and decides to see for herself what is up there (It’s the elder brother’s drug stash which Danny decides to steal to fund his escape from the town) But while she is up there Danny arrives, shoots his brother and comes up to get his drugs (which Harriet has destroyed). He thinks he has drowned her but she fools him and escapes leaving him in the water to drown. But she finds out at the end that Danny was not the murderer at all.

Racism of the time is dealt with with subtlety (dismissal of Ida Rhew, sacking of Hely’s housekeeper, failure to tell Libby’s maid that Libby had died)

Gripping narrative, superb writing and great characterisations.

I first got to know this book as an audiobook. It was beautifully read and great to listen to.

TITLE: The Righteous Men

AUTHOR: Sam Bourne


DATE READ: August 2006

NOTES: Thriller set in US involving Brit newspaperman and Messianic prediction of Judaism. Fast moving and lots of intriguing clues and twists and turns involving murder of 36 righteous men. Involvement of Hassidics and Christian fundamentalists. Pacy but ultimately just a holiday read.

I chose to read this as I knew it had been written by Jonathan Freedland, an erudite Guardian writer. This book is definitely a dumbed down version of his writing! I should have been warned by the quote on the cover "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown"......


AUTHOR: James Shapiro


DATE READ: July 2006

NOTES: I heard James Shapiro talk at the Hay Festival in 2005 and as a result bought his book.

Erudite and scholarly work. Very good detail on the political scene of the time and how this impacted on the writing of William Shakespeare. Great insights into the life and times of late 16th century England. I liked the way he relates the happenings of the times directly back to Shakespeare’s works. Fascinating.


AUTHOR: Anne Tyler


DATE READ: June 2006

NOTES: Macon and Sarah have lost a child, Ethan, who was murdered in a robbery at a store. This tragedy has torn them apart and Sarah decides to leave. Macon is a very quirky person, unconventional and unsociable. Likes everything to be very controlled and organized. He works as a travel guide writer for business men who really don’t want to be away from home. Advises on how to cope in strange cities by keeping everything as similar as possible to life at home.

However his dog is uncontrollable and frequently attacks people and this is how he comes to meet Muriel who works as a dog trainer. She is the opposite of him – casual, untidy, talkative and sociable. He is drawn to her and her child, Alexander, a weakly child who warms to Macon gradually. However he is still drawn to his wife and eventually they move in together again. Muriel follows him to Paris (she had said that she wanted to go with him on his next trip) and hopes to make things work again. However because Macon hurts his back his wife flies out to be with him. Macon soon realises that their relationship is not what he wants and he misses the chaos of life with Muriel.

A super read. Beautiful characterisations – everyone is believable. Macon’s heartbreak at losing his son and his genuine confusion about life in general is well drawn. There is a heartwarming subplot of his siblings.

What a great storyteller Anne Tyler is!


AUTHOR: Rohinton Mistry


DATE READ: May 2006

NOTES: An amazing book – paints a brilliant picture of India for ordinary people. A huge sweep of history from before independence to early 1980s. Interlinking stories of Parsis, Outcastes, Muslims and Hindus – characters really live within the pages. In some ways it is a very bleak story (especially the harsh attitudes towards lower castes and the political abuses of Mrs Ghandi’s Emergency) but in other ways it has humour and is an uplifting tale of the human spirit. Among all the bleakness and cruelty there is really kindness and generosity. Characters are rarely “good” or “bad” but their actions stem from the situations in which they find themselves.

A real page turner, Mistry is a wonderful story-teller. A Fine Balance is one of the best books I have ever read – remained with me long after I had finished reading it.


AUTHOR: Cecelia Ahern


DATE READ: February 2007

NOTES: Since a childhood schoolmate went missing twenty years ago Sandy Shortt has been obsessed with missing people and missing objects – to the point of obsessive compulsive disorder. After leaving the police force she sets up an agency to seek out missing persons for others. While travelling to meet the brother of a young man who disappeared a year ago she finds herself in a mysterious world inhabited by “lost” people and objects.

Will she find her way back home? Will Jack, who is determined to find her, succeed? Quite frankly, I didn’t care where she ended up or what happened to any of the characters. I only kept reading because I thought there may be some actual rational explanation for what was happening. I should have known better. What a load of tosh.

Could the time I have lost reading this nonsense ever be found again?


AUTHOR: John Steinbeck


DATE READ: January 2007

NOTES: I first read this book about 30 years ago but it was great to return to it again. A phenomenal achievement – telling the story of the Joad family as they struggle to survive in the depression of the thirties in US. There is hope and despair in the book but Steinbeck always ensures that the innate goodness of ordinary people shines through. Some wonderful characters: Ma who is determined to keep the family together, the fiery Tom who leaves to organize other workers, Rosasharn whose dreams of a happy future fall away but she nonetheless is prepared to give her mother’s milk to a starving man. And the picture of Casy is remarkable – a preacher no longer certain of his faith but who finds practical ways of putting others before himself.

Although the story is set some 70 years ago there are still many modern parallels. Some of the comments made about the Okies are echoed today in relation to immigrants. And big companies trying to reduce what they pay to their suppliers? Did someone mention Tesco?

Some chapters hardly move the narrative forward but instead offer Steinbeck’s reflections on the situation. These are little gems, beautifully written, and could be part of a book on political philosophy.

A triumph of a book – should be compulsory reading for everyone!


AUTHOR: Ian McEwan


DATE READ: March 2006

NOTES: A day in the life of Henry Perowne, neurosurgeon, set against the background of the anti-Iraq war march in London. An apparently privileged man has his world rocked by the events of the day. Every event is told from his point of view (Mrs Dalloway?) and how it impacts on him and his family. From waking early and watching a cargo plane on fire as it flies over the city, (a terrorist attack in the making?) to his final resolve to forgive the man who desecrated the sanctity of his home and family. He gets into a quarrel with another motorist as he hurries to his morning squash match. This ends in being punched by other motorist – and could have been worse but Perowne identifies Baxter as being in early stages of Hodgkinson’s disease, a neurological problem, and uses this information to escape. A bad-tempered squash match with a colleague and then shopping and a visit to his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. All this is suffused with thoughts on the marchers and their motives, his own uncertain approach to the coming war, his family and especially his daughter (who is beginning to be published as a poet) and her fraught relationship with her maternal grandfather, who is a well known poet.

This all makes a really compelling read – some lovely well drawn family relationships. He is a faithful husband very much in love with his wife and proud of his children. Beautiful evocation of living in London. A wonderful book.


AUTHOR: C J Sansom


DATE READ: February 2007

NOTES: Well crafted story of three school fellows and how their lives collide and separate. Bernie, a communist travels to Spain and later joins International Brigade – injured and captured and not released after the end of the war. Harry – middle of the road academic who is enlisted in 1940 by Intelligence to work in Spain. He had been shell shocked at Dunkirk. In Spain he is asked to find out what Sandy Forsyth is up to – seems to be into shady business deals.

Meanwhile Bernie’s girlfriend Barbara has moved in with Sandy, believing Bernie to be dead. Barbara finds out that Bernie is alive and sets about rescuing him from a prison camp near Cuenca.

Paints a very vivid picture of Spain in the Civil War and the years following. Deals well with the complex issues and varying political complexities of the time. Plot is complex but the machinations of the British Embassy are all too believable.

This author is new to me - but I shall look out for his other work.