The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice December 12th 2007

Reminiscent of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith this is the engrossing story of Penny and her eccentric family in the post-WW2 1950’s just before the advent of rock and roll. A lovely, humorous and nostalgic read, I came upon it quite by chance when a damaged copy came in as a customer's special order. I don't usually choose pink covers, but this one was surprisingly charming.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte November 14th: 2pm and November 28th: 7pm 2007

A moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection borne with fortitude: the story of a woman's right to love and be loved.We're looking forward to seeing how our adult selves respond to this book, compared to the way we read it when we were teenagers. Our re-readings of Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier found us with very different feelings towards certain characters.

Maps for Lost Lovers by Aslam Nadeem October 10th: 2pm and October 31st: 7pm 2007

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

A group of ten of us met today to talk about this remarkable book, and we were unanimous in our admiration of it, and of the style in which it is written. It tells of events which affect a Pakistani family living in an un-named city in Britain, and of how these events impinge on their community.
Around this family is painted a detailed and revelatory picture of Muslim life, a sensitive topic for these times, but told with calm and unflinching directness by the author, himself a Muslim. We all noted that his style and use of language were somehow not those of a British-born writer. The book is rich in imagery, poetic in its descriptions, full of beauty and colour, all of which contribute to the “foreignness” of its themes, and transform its British location into somewhere unfamiliar and exotic.
The story itself is complex, but at its centre is the mother of the family, a middle-aged Muslim of fervent devoutness, stranded, with her strict and unbending beliefs within an equally rigid Pakistani community, in 21stcentury Britain. Around her unfold a tragic sequence of events, which she can only watch with helpless bewilderment. None of us was left unmoved by the desperate sadness of this woman`s life; but there were other emotions too, aroused by the oppressive and cruel control system imposed by the laws of Islam, especially over women, and the double-standards shown by the men on whom they depended. But both men and women colluded to prop up this system and defend its values, at whatever personal cost, in the face of the “Western” lifestyle that surrounded them. With limited success, however, since the children of the family, with such irreconcileable forces tugging them in opposite directions, had choices to make.
Naseem Aslam took 11 years to write this book, not with the idea of delivering a message, but as a way of understanding his own life. We all felt, even though it needed some effort to get into, that it more than rewarded a slow read, and was one of the most worthwhile books on the “list” this year.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff July 4th: 2pm and July 18th: 7pm 2007

Supposedly for teenagers, this won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2004. A gripping narrative set in a future war, this is “all about love” to quote the author. I was spellbound, (and immediately moved it from children's to adults!)

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes June 6th 2007

Re-reading The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes published by Persephone, in our reading group last year, reminded me of this lovely, understated little book. A quiet day, nothing much happening, but oh, what lovely writing!

Beloved by Toni Morrison May 9th 2007

One of the great classics of black American literature, and indeed of great literature regardless of any kind of boundary limitations. This is a novel that makes you change the way you feel about your place in the world. A shocking, compelling and brilliant read.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson April 25th 2007

A quietly beautiful book, an old man looks back on his life and wonders what he will pass on to his very young son, and much-loved wife. We’ve waited a long time for this one! Marilynne Robinson's haunting Housekeeping is one of my top five books. I love the seriousness and poetry of her writing.

Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka March 14th 2007

I’m looking forward to reading this one, having heard so many different opinions about it! We are hoping to get Marina Lewycka to include Wenlock Books in her tour dates around now, as she promotes her new book.

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(Marina has very kindly been in touch, but it looks unlikely that she'll manage a visit.)

This, for me, was one of those reading experiences where I just didn't "get it" while I was reading the book, and I had to keep asking myself what all the fuss had been about. I felt squeamish about a lot of it; didn't find it laugh out loud funny (as promised by the blurb) and really just didn't like it. Then we talked about it in the reading group, and as one or other of us read bits from the book, I found myself laughing with retrospective humour, and enjoying the cadences of the Ukranian/English language. We often find that talking about a book enables us to see things in it we hadn't seen before, but I don't think I've ever done such a complete u-turn!

Tractors addresses some very serious issues: Eastern-European immigration; family tensions; elder abuse; sibling rivlary; aging and power - or lack of it - and more. With a lightness of touch, and a good ear for invented language, Marina Lewycka explores some of today's hot topics. Reminiscent in some ways of Small Island by Andrea Levy, it's a book that shines a light on everyday life and makes us look at it twice.

As for my squeamishness, well I still really don't like the image of the naked old man saluting the sun, but, thanks to the 80+ year olds in my reading groups (who found it very funny); well, if they can laugh at it, so can I!

Sex Wars by Marge Piercy February 7th 2007

Always a treat to have a new Marge Piercy, this is the story of the pioneers of women’s rights in the America of the 1860s and 70’s. I've been reading Marge Piercy since the 1970's and have been challenged, moved, inspired ... never disappointed!

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Or at least, never disappointed until now! I tried twice to get through this book, the second time being on our reader's retreat in Wales, when there was all the time in the world to focus on and relax into a good book. This was turgid and pedestrian: I finally gave up after 80 pages. Opinions among the two groups were also pretty similar; that she "told" rather than "showed"; that the only time there was any real life or lightness to the writing was when she was talking about the only completely fictional character; that although the premise of the book was worthy it just didn't work. Discussion in the group (one group was cancelled due to complete lack of interest in the book!) was interesting and lively as the women's rights movement was discussed; past, present and future (!), but this was a general conversation based on our own thoughts and experiences and bore little reference to the book.

Very, very disappointing.

If you want to read Piercy try Small Changes, Woman on the Edge of Time; Vida, Gone to Soldiers, her memoir - Sleeping with Cats - pretty well anything; just not this one!

The Reader by Ali Smith January 17th 2007

A fascinating selection of the prose, poetry, songs and articles that have informed Ali Smith’s reading and writing life, from childhood through to adulthood.You’ll meet well-loved favourites, make the acquaintance of new writers, and be reminded of long forgotten ones. Just like browsing someone else's book case.
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I so enjoyed dipping into The Reader over the Christmas holidays. It was great to see some of my own favourites there; Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson being particular favourites that I was surprised and pleased to find. I also really enjoyed Ali Smith's introduction to this selection, and to be honest, would have liked to have known more about why she made certain choices, why they were important to her and so on. She argues that she didn't want to get between the reader and the piece of work, which I understand, but I'll be interested to see (if this series continues as promised with other writers) if this standing back, this invisibility, is present throughout.

Reading an eclectic selection like this is, of course, also a fabulous way of being introduced to new writers, and trying out unfamiliar genres and styles. From the reading group's point of view, it was also fascinating to see how we had all picked out something different as a special favourite: the way we tackled this together was for us to suggest pieces we had liked which we then read aloud to the group. Being read to in this way deepened our enjoyment and reception of many of the pieces.