Friday, 18 December 2009

Books of the year

"Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we must ask ourselves not what it says, but what it means" Umberto Eco

I agree with Karen - the book group pushes me to read outside my comfort zone. This year Mr Pip, Snow Falling On Cedars and What I Loved were up there for me; all three informed and entertained, their authors obviously having expertise/love of a subject they wanted to share through storytelling.

Notes from the Underground surprised me and shocked me. What a character Dostoyevsky created! And finally, The Key proved a great read a second time around. A much deeper piece of fiction than I first thought. Which takes me back to Umbert Eco's quote...

Struggling to find the Key

This month's read was The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki, a short Japanese novel chosen by Andy, the long-suffering token male in the group. The narrative is constructed from the secret diaries of a husband and wife, who each assume the other is reading their diary, and the story revolves around their mutually manipulative sex life. But is it an erotic novel? Some of the women in the group found it deeply unerotic and, not for the first time, we fell into discussion about what sets men and women apart (both in literature and life?).

The book gave us much to talk about, and was, as Andy said, a multi-layered story of old and new Japan, family politics, jealousy, sexual dynamics - even a hint of murder. It was interesting to compare it with last month's read, Memoirs of a Geisha - this was a more modern setting(1950s) and the women had more control, but the contrast between public propriety and a certain alcohol-assisted looseness were similar. Andy said that the novel was most of all 'a vehicle for illuminating a marraige' and we agreed that the themes of deception and avoidance are common to many marraiges. The man's obsession with viewing his wife naked was maybe not that unusual, and June related a Shetland tale of a (drunk?) man mistaking a sow for his wife 'wi her goonie aff'! Someone commented on the loveless attitude to sex, and lack of foreplay - 'but did men do foreplay before 1956?' retorted Andy!

We also took the chance to look back at our reads over the last year. For me, the most rewarding are the ones I probably wouldn't have picked up had I not had to read them for the group. A Perfect Storm and Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road were two of those.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Memoirs of a geisha - even better on re-reading

For nearly all the members at November's group meeting, this was our second read of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a geisha. An exceptional debut novel - we wondered if he'd published anything notable since, and no, he seems to have published nothing at all! But there was general agreement that producing one really good book is better than a long list of mediocre ones any day.

It was most of all the authenticity of the narrative voice that impressed the group: how could it be that an American man could so convincingly write as a Japanese woman? It was dreamy and detailed. It was also a tremendous history lesson, and about a piece of Japanese life that was very little known.

Geishas were basically sold into slavery as children - this description was harrowing - but could attain a level of power and status. Men though, were fully in control and the sexism of Japanese society was notable.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


October's book choice was Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. A "whodunit" set in the 1950s against the background of Japanese-American immigration.

The quality of the prose, the multilayered depth of the plot and the new perspectives it explored meant that Guterson's book was enjoyed by all of the group and universally recommended. His characters were well drawn and had a humanity that you immediately empathised with.

Karen pointed out that the courtroom, which plays such a pivotal role in the novel, is a popular device in American literature/film. Margie thought that this was maybe due to it being one of the cornerstones of American life. Guterson seamlessly moved from story to testimony; handling the movement back and forward in time with deceptive ease.

Many of the group thought that the depiction of snow was especially well rendered and compared it to books such as The Tenderness of Wolves. Janet put forward the idea that the coldness it brought to the town was a metaphor for the effect the death of a local fisherman had on an apparently well integrated community.

A lot of discussion centered around the effect the war with Japan had on many of the characters and how Kabuo felt as a soldier fighting for a country that didn't really accept him. This then broadened out into a wide ranging debate on World War 2 - America's reaction to Pearl Habour, the cost in lives if nuclear bombs hadn't been used to end fighting, Shetland's Role of Honour, Britain's multicultural inheritance following the war and break up of the Commonwealth.

An enjoyable and thought provoking novel.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Felicia's Journey

The group met on the 21st of September to discuss Felicia's Journey by William Trevor. Janet had chosen this book because it is by an excellent writer who provides great attention to detail i.e. Hilditch's small childish hands say a lot about his character.This is a novel of betrayal -Felicia is let down by her family,by her lover and ultimately by Hilditch, whom she initially trusts implicitly. Hilditch lives his life in constant denial -his fantasy life is as real to the reader as his mundane day-to-day existence, which is a life of lost and wasted opportunities. At the end of the book,Felicia achieves a degree of contol over her own life for the first time.
Karen felt that Felicia's father could be kind and caring as well as strict and that he sought only the best for his family.
June found the book creepy and almost unreadable at the start -the unhappy main character seemed one dimentional -but she was pleased that she persevered with it.
Margaret wished that the ending of the book had been more positive, and that Felicia had found a better life than the one she ends up with.
Janet commented that her lack of self esteem made the ending inevitable.
Morag found Hilditch's character fascinating and believable -it made her think of real life characters who were in denial over their actions.
Several of the group commented on the food theme which runs through the book.
Marghie felt this was one of the best books she had read and liked being drawn into the story.
The character of Miss Calligary is essentail to the plot, as she ultimately proves to be Hilditch's undoing,and also provides some much needed humour.
The plot break where the reader is left not knowing Felicia's fate also added to the tension in the story.
Marghie commented on the name Felicia,meaning happiness -were the other characters determined to destroy this?
The group agreed that this was a cleverly written book which had held everyones attention right to the final page.

Monday, 31 August 2009

A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy

August's book, chosen by Anne, was the travelogue-cum-investigative "Orchid Fever" by Eric Hansen. It explored the fascination and beauty of these rare flowers together with the world of growers, collectors and exhibitors.
A major part of the book was the role of CITES (the worldwide organisation controlling the movement of rare species of plants and animals) and how they regulate the once free-for-all trade in orchids. Hansen portrays their role as inept, aggressive or obfuscating and there was an air of poacher turned game keeper with many former collectors turning turtle and chasing their partners of old.
Anne hadn't read the book before and although she enjoyed it she felt slightly let down by the quote on the cover claiming it to be laugh out loud funny. The group felt the book did have its humorous moments peppered as it was with interesting, oddball or even extreme characters and I certainly chuckled at a couple of their antics.
Marghie thought that the book was more like a series of articles for a magazine (which was the general consensus), many of us enjoyed different chapters as we felt an empathy with its subject. Karen thought colour plates might have brought the orchids to life a bit more for the reader. The black and white line drawings used for the chapter pages didn't set anyone's pulse racing - as Hansen suggested the form of particular orchids could do to enthusiasts!
Jean brought in Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, a fictional book set in 1630s Amsterdam where fortunes were made and lost speculating on tulip bulbs. She felt that the books were similar in many ways. I thought that Eric Hansen's literary style would have suited many different hobbies or interests and each would have thrown up its fair share of characters and interesting stories.
"Stamp Fever" - now there's a title to whet your interest....

Monday, 3 August 2009

Colin Cotterill - recommended read

This year, I got the chance to be a judge again for the Crime Writers Association Dagger in the Library Award. This involved reading an awful lot of crime books throughout the Spring, then meeting my fellow judges for a long lunch in London, where we thrashed out our shortlist. Writers for this Dagger are nominated by libraries and book groups, and all the judges are librarians. It's a good category to read as it's for writers who have already produced a few books, but are still 'up and coming', and every year we discover some gems.

This year's winner was the wonderful Colin Cotterill, who has set a series of books in Laos, 1975. His hero is a 75-year old state coroner. Not the usual recipe for a crime book, but the setting is very interesting and the main character's sardonic wit really makes the books special. Me and some of the other judges went to the awards ceremony in London in July. We wern't expecting our winner to be there, as he lives in Thailand, so we were thrilled when he appeared from the back of the room to pick up his prize. And he turned out to we an all-round nice guy into the bargain - here's a picture of me and my fellow judges mobbing him. (He's the one at the back holding his award).

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Book Group met on the 23rd of July to discuss Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved. This was Laura's choice, which she picked up on her travels a couple of years ago and really enjoyed.
She felt it was a good comment on social relationships. Janet found it a book of two halves and felt that the relationships lacked raw emotion. She also found some of the descriptive art passages tedious, but enjoyed the intensity of the book's latter half, as did Margaret.
Andy found himself liking certain parts of the book more than others, preferring certain characters to others.
June was fascinated by the lives of the artists referred to in the book, and identified with the book's historical perspective. Morag also enjoyed the descriptive passages on art.
Laura felt that the female characters in the book were cold and that the reader could identify more with feelings of the male characters, and June agreed, although she liked Violet.
Andy pointed out how the characters ultimately end up on their own, and Janet saw the book as a study of human imperfection. Kathleen was the only member who had not read the book, due to a delay with her order, but following the discussion she said that she was looking forward to reading it.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Modern viking saga fascinates book group

In June we all read The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone - very timely as this year's midummer Johnsmas Foy celebrations in Shetland had a viking theme. This is a modern viking saga - the story of Gudrid, the most travelled woman of the viking world - who went from Iceland to Greenland to North America and had somehow got herself to Rome near journey's end, where she told her life story to a young scribe.

This was based on several of the old viking sagas, and told in saga style (some of our group had got round to reading the originals). The descriptions of the land and the arduous climate rang true and the astonishingly dangerous sea journeys were thrilling. Some Shetlanders still claim we are a hardy Viking Race, but having to walk to the shops for a pint of milk is too much for most of us nowadays.

Margaret Elphinstone used to stay in Shetland and in fact Morag remembers working with her in the library. They used to discuss the great novels they were writing. We still await Morag's (with every faith it will come) but Margaret has written a great book here which the whole group enjoyed. Apparently her others are good as well.

Not the Orkney Way...

Yes, The Stornoway Way is very real in it's depiction of the downward spiral of alcohol. Here in Shetland we're also unable to handle our drink, or our drugs for that matter. I await the great modern Shetland novel that tackles this dark side of our affluent society.

Kevin MacNeil is a great chap - made himself very popular in the year he stayed in Shetland, and I'm sure we'll see some good results from the creative writing classes he conducted.

But on the subject of books depicting the seamy underside of island life, were you aware of the scandal over this Orkney book?
Chucking It All: How Downshifting To A Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life has now been pulped by the publisher after an 'outcry'. Shame on Alistair Carmichael MP - a Lib Dem - for being instrumental in getting a book banned. OK, edit for any actual libels...but what are those folk scared of? We in Shetland are all dying to read it -as is most of Orkney, I suspect. Anyone got a proof copy?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil

I was in the library recently and this jumped out from the shelves - maybe it was because Kevin is on the list of authors for Wordplay. I remember it being one of a pair of books we read nearly two years ago on the subject of teenage island life. I enjoyed Venus as a Boy, but didn't get time to read The Stornoway Way.
Illuminating and entertaining in equal parts - it's not a book to read stone cold sober. The main thrust was how alcohol greases the wheels of social gatherings, blunts the harshness of humdrum life and lessens the cloying effect of net-twitching in a small community still heavily influenced by the church. Booze starts off as a sticking plaster, then becomes a crutch and finally a lethal injection. There's nothing, literally and metaphorically, at the bottom of a bottle.
It also reminded me of The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson - all three using the ruse that they were written by someone "else" with the author a mere conduit... A good pretense when the subject matter is tricky and/or the locale is small such as the Western Isles or Orkney.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Brave New World for the book group

This month's read was Brave New World by Adlous Huxley, chosen by Andy. It was a book that already seemed very familiar because, like Orwell's 1984, there are ideas, images and phrases that have become part of our language and our culture. All the group members enjoyed reading it, even if most wern't entirely satisfied with the story. None of the characters were very strong - because they were just vehicles for the idea. Tellingly, one group member, John, commented that the only person he felt he knew was Linda - poor, imperfect Linda, who'd fallen out of the system and committed the sin of getting ill, fat and unhappy. Everyone else was a slave to ruthless conditioning and predestination, drugged up on soma to keep passions at bay. The way peoples role in life could be formed in the birthing jar was a really strong image. Morag obseved that she'd spotted a few Epsilons on Jerry Springer that very day.

The background to the book - published in 1932 -was eugenics, American consumerism, the Great Depression, and the notion that the problems of society could be cured by a grand Plan. Although a less brutal regime than that of 1984, the 'civilisation' of the Brave New World was repugnant. John pointed out how it sometimes mirrored today's society: the botox/slimming mania to keep folk young forever; ageism; sexualisation of children; disgust at breast feeding in public; the doling out of antideppressant drugs from an early age.

The argument for encouraging promiscuity made a weird kind of sense - chastity breeds passion, and passion causes instabilty. We had a society therefore where everyone was at it like rabbits but it was just yawningly unerotic. The society recognised and admitted the central flaw of our consumerist world, to quote the Controller: "Industrial civilisation is only possible where there's no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits...otherwise the wheels stop turning."

We loved Helmholtz's plea to be exiled to an island with a bad climate: "I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example..." I thought they were going to send him to Shetland, but it turned out to be the Falklands! Should Shetland Arts use Helmholtz's quote to attract writers here though?

Monday, 11 May 2009

The Perfect Storm

Our last discussion centered on the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. As a whole the group felt it was a interesting read and that depiction of the lives and deaths of a sword boat crew had particular resonance for us since we live on an island and see our share of storms. The detailed description of drowning was particularly harrowing.
I felt the need to see an image of the boat and easily found this image on the Internet. This is the style of fishing boat I have seen throughout my life on the shore of New Jersey which lent the story even more poignancy for me. What was more unsettling was finding images of the lost crew. There are more images of life on the Andrea Gail at
The group felt the story arc of the book sagged a bit in the middle after the Andrea Gail went down but that the pace picked up again with the description of the rescue of the crew of the Satori. The lengths that the National Guard and Coast Guard went to rescue the crew from the teeth of the storm were quite extraordinary. Andy insightfully pointed out that the structure of the book mirrors the structure of a storm with the building of tension, violent weather, calm at the eye and more violent weather and finally a survey of the damage done by the storm.
If you liked The Perfect Storm you might want to read The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw who was the captain of the Hannah Boden, the sister boat to the Andrea Gail. Her book describes life on a a sword fish boat. She is one of the few female boat captains in the sword fish fleet.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Notes from the Underground

For our first Friday night meeting, Karen's choice was Dostoevsky's short novel 'Notes from the Underground'. Apologising for her second choice (after ditching 'Don Quixote') Karen led the discussion off.

In the first third of the novel Dostoevsky's introduces his anti-hero, "I'm a sick man... I'm a malicious man. An unattractive man, I am". No-one disagreed with this statement (and many thought it was tough going and had to skim read the first portion of the book).

The main character is a (very) petite-bourgeoisie official, educated but poorly paid; constantly thinking about himself and his actions, withdrawn and socially inept. The group thought that maybe he was too much of a thinker: "the direct, legitimate, immediate fruit of consciousness is inertia". Anne and Karen thought he was more like someone suffering from mental illness and there was some discussion whether this was Dostoevsky's state of mind at the time the book was written...

Yet the character's ramblings reflected many of the issues of the time. Was he a man or an organ stop? Was he a mere functional creation? Did he have freewill? Were the laws of physics and maths set in stone? Two twos is always four, but it would be nice if two twos were five! Morag and I thought that if Dostoevsky's hadn't based the character on himself, then it was a very accomplished portrayal, setting the scene for the later vignette 'Apropos of the Sleet'.

This second part of the book relates to the dinner-party with his old "friends" (but of course he has no true friends, as he cannot act with spontaneity and without self doubt or paranoia) and what happens when they leave him behind and he goes to a brothel. There are passages of black humour, especially when he believes he has been slighted and cannot bring himself to reply, but paces the room for hours whilst ignored by the other guests. I'll leave the ending a mystery, but he acts dreadfully to type in the final pages and I was speechless with him! Nearly all the group read this part and enjoyed it. As an aside James Joyce said Dostoevsky was the writer who "created modern prose, and intensified it to its present day pitch"...

Finally there was a discussion centered on who could play such a tortured soul on film: a gaunt Hugh Laurie was my vote, a manic Johnny Depp was popular and Christian Bale also received votes from our two newest members.

These are the events of the book group that cold night, yet you may think otherwise. There are those of you that experienced it for what it was and thought nothing more. Yet there maybe others amongst you will think more deeply, belittle my write up and join me in thinking it despicably self-satisfying...
:) Notes from the laptop

Saturday, 28 February 2009

February read – The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards.

The February meeting of the book group was well attended, with nine keen readers making it to the Old Library Centre, despite the rawness of the weather. We all enjoyed a leisurely discussion of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Jean, who had selected the book, introduced her choice with an outline of the story.

Questions of morality and responsibility occupied a great deal of the discussion – was David’s decision the night his twins were born simply morally repugnant or was it understandable, forgivable, even, given the prevailing attitude of the time?

We talked a lot about the likeability of the main characters and the extent to which that might affect our judgements of their actions and attitudes. Most of us found merit in Kim Edwards’ writing, especially her descriptive passages and her evocation of a strong sense of place. There was less enthusiasm about the narrative aspects of this novel, some of us admitting that we gave up on the characters and their troubles long before the end of the story. In particular, quite a few were frustrated by David’s sudden death before the issues raised by his actions had been resolved and felt that, although his life had been deeply affected by the snap decision to send Phoebe away, and to lie about it, he had never really had to face what he had done.

As is often the case, our discussions wandered off topic, perfectly enjoyably, onto quite unrelated subjects – New Zealand, emigration from Shetland, what drove people to leave, recent and upcoming films at the Garrison Theatre, Shetland during the Second World War, food security and traditional farming in Shetland (sorry, my fault, but thanks to all for your input).

On the tasty treats front, Marghie saved the day, and my tum from rumbling all the way through, by bringing some delicious biscuits for us all – big thanks!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

you must read this!

For those of you who enjoy short stories with a dark twist,can I recommend Stephen King's latest collection,Just After Sunset.
I have to admit that, being an avid fan of Stephen King's early writings, I have been a bit disappointed with some of his more recent works. But I am glad to report that this latest offering is both gripping and chilling -the kind of stories which stay with you for a long time.
Perhaps this is because most of these stories were written in the aftermath of 9/11,and therefore focus on the unimaginable becoming real,and normality transforming into terrifying abnormality.
Many of the stories prey on our worst fears,and for me,the most disturbing was the final story, A Very Tight Place.
All in all,I would say this Stephen King back on top form and well worth a read.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Book Group 20/01/09

Tuesday's meeting was well attended,with ten regular and two new members coming along.
The book under discussion was Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones,which was my choice. My reasons for choosing this title were from other readers' recommendations and also from reading very positive reviews. I felt this was a book which would keep me hooked to the end, and it did not disappoint in that respect.
Most of the group enjoyed the book,although Janet felt that the ending wasn't in keeping with the rest of the story,and some people agreed with this.
There was some discussion on the setting of the story and the politics which influenced the plot,which led to further comments on colonialism and how authentic the details of the rebel activity were. Andy said he believed that the story was loosely based on actual events.
Further discussion followed on Dickens,the composition of Great Expectations,how well the story adapts to film,the parallels between the plot of Mr Pip and that of Great Expectations and the significance of certain aspects of the plot which don't become clear until the final chapter.
We also considered how the story would have worked without the link to Dickens,and agreed that this was what made the story stand out from other stories of oppressed communities.
On the whole,most of the group had found this a worthwhile read,despite one or two admitting to having skimmed the later chapters once the story shifted from the main plot!
Everyone is now looking forward to reading the Memory Keeper's Daughter and Silent in the Grave,which are next month's choices.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Mister Pip

Wow! What a wonderful book. It is the best book by a contemporary writer that I've read in long, long while. I sat and thought about the book for about an hour after finishing it and began to re-read it immediately....I'm really looking forward to the discussion on this one! Now I need to buy my own copy because I have to return the library copy which naturally has a waiting list.

Dubliners discussion

Well after some gentle prodding by Karen….here are my recollections of the discussion of James Joyce’s Dubliners. (I am sure my memory is imperfect now that the holidays have taken their toll…so chime in folks and add to or correct me.)

I choose Dubliners because it is a book I have read several times. I also like to re-read the story The Dead during the Christmas holidays because it seems to me to capture the melancholic but also sweet memories of the passing of one year into another.

As I re-read the stories this time I noticed that they seemed inter-linked with similar characters appearing on several stories. (Andy compared them to a book of stories by Will Self where characters from one story crop up in another.) I can see that there is a sort of narrative arc moving through the stories depicting youth through middle to old age. Joyce wrote in a letter about seeking to describe a Dublin that he saw as the “centre of paralysis” and indeed many of the characters of Dubliners are trapped by their circumstances, fears or belief.

Several people in the groups mentioned that Joyce’s language made them fell they could really “hear” the characters. Others felt his descriptions are “dead on”. For instance the description of Maria in the story “Clay” as a “very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin,” allows us a clear picture of her physical character.

We discussed the fact that Joyce had difficulty in getting the stories published and that there were elements, particularly about the church and sex, which would have riled the average Irish reader of his time.

I also quite clearly remember someone mentioning that the stories “didn’t go anywhere” and indeed the stories are less concerned with describing an event or series of events than describing an interaction between people or describing a situation. Many of the stories seem to trail away and come to no real resolution…I imagine this is another way to indicate Dublin’s “paralysis”.