Tuesday, 25 November 2014

"Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - November 2014

The reading group all agreed that this is a very well written book with one member calling the writing “silky”. Descriptions are so well formed that readers can almost taste the food and smell the surroundings, and characters are believable, minor as well as the major ones. The book’s title refers to the half of a yellow sun on the flag of the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from May 1967 to January 1970. The symbolism of the flag is explained in the text.
Through the lives of two economically privileged sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their respective partners, the revolutionary academic Odenigbo and the rather insipid English would-be writer Richard, and, in particular, Odenigbo’s peasant houseboy Ugwu, the author reveals the horrors of war. Readers are given an understanding of why the civil war took place and the role of the colonialists in fermenting tribal unrest, but the core of the story is what happens to people in war. The characters are well rounded and complex: Olanna is kind, caring and forgiving (she brings up her partner’s child as her own, she forgives his transgression) but she betrays her own sister in an unforgivable way. Ugwu, who could be seen as representing outmoded superstitious values of pre-industrial Nigeria, is kind too, but he also commits an appalling act that will disturb readers.
The book is an intelligent read; one comes away knowing something about Nigeria in the 1960s, the failure of the Biafran state and the tremendous cost of the civil war.
Although the narrative is clear, a glossary of all the non-English words used in the text and an historic timeline showing major events would have been a help to readers who had very limited or no knowledge of Nigerian languages and history.
By Jasmina

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom, from our group in June 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

Most of our reading group agreed that ‘The Kitchen House’ by Kathleen Grissom was a good story and a good read.

The main setting is in the ‘Kitchen House ‘on a cotton plantation in the Southern states of America.
The story features black slavery, but is about multiple types of entrapment that physically, emotionally and mentally enslave most of the white characters and all of those that are black. It illustrates the stark difference between good and evil and exposes an age that had little regard for personal respect, human dignity and sexual choice. An age that was afraid to lose control and was motivated by feudal power to its own enragement.

The main character is Lavinia. She is introduced to the reader as a white, Irish seven year old. A child traumatised by the loss of her parents and by witnessing a slave hanging.

The lot of the Irish in this era isn’t clear. The reading group would have appreciated more information about indentured servitude as Lavinia is the character that we follow throughout the novel.

The owner of the wealthy plantation is called the ‘Captain’. Lavinia is transported to the plantation to work and is put into the kitchen house under the care of two black slaves: Belle and her mother Mama Mae. Belle is a favoured slave as she is the captain’s illegitimate daughter. Throughout the novel Belle and Lavinia’s lives become increasingly more entwined. Both women care for children who are jointly dependent on each of them. Two of their children are conceived by the Captain’s legitimate son Marshal; Belle’s as a result of rape and Lavinia’s within her marriage to Marshal. Both women were forced by circumstance into their pre-marital and marital roles. Both were in love with other men.

Lavinia considers her black family her kin. She struggles in a conservative white world to assert her identity. Members of the reading group found some of the other characters in Lavinias ‘family‘ story came across as stereotypical, and it was difficult for the reader to make them real. Some found the complexity of the relationships hard to follow. However, it was felt that the life of the plantation owner’s wife Miss Martha was more believable and that her descent into drug dependency and insanity served as a dynamic illustration of social entrapment.

Ben, a black slave at the plantation, is Belle’s true love. Lavinia loves and trusts Will Stephens, a white plantation owner. Will is a practising Christian and treats slaves with comparative respect. This makes him the natural enemy of Rankin, the Captain’s overseer. Rankin is the all-time white ‘Bad guy!’

The actions of Ben and Rankin affect the lives of all main characters. Rankin’s credibility with the Captain causes the monstrous side of Marshal to develop. In the early stages of the story, Rankin encourages Waters, a paedophile tutor, in his abuse of the child Marshal. There is no communication beyond formality in the ‘Big Plantation House,’ it’s only in the ‘Kitchen House’ that there is awareness of what is happening.

A dynamic tension of values arises as Ben chooses crime to prevent Rankin’s cruelty to both fellow slaves and Miss Martha’s children. Will Stephens is the only white person who displays integrity and refutes Rankin and his methods of control.

The tension between good and evil continues to escalate and towards the end, similar to how the story starts, Lavinia’s young daughter Elly is a witness to the hanging of innocent Mama Mae. Following this, Elly also loses her father Marshall to an early violent death.

Members of the group agreed we would like to read the sequel as we need to know what happens to the children.

Ann . Clapton reader.


Monday, 6 October 2014

"The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood - October 2014

All of us were tremendously impressed by the writing, the story, and the history in “The Blind Assassin”. One member said that the story “grabbed her straightaway” from the opening sentence, and we all agreed that the writing was intriguing and beautiful, with inventive turns of phrases and cleverly constructed ambiguity. We readers were never sure if the narrator was reliable (and we learn later on that she has led us down the garden path in several ways), but despite switching between different ages and perspectives, Margaret Atwood always manages to make it perfectly clear where we are, and manages it elegantly and seamlessly, with no clunky constructions or other possible pitfalls a lesser author could have stumbled into. An amazing novel.

We felt that we got a good overview of the history of the 20th Century; politics, feminism, and fashion included: one member commented that she “could practically see the hemlines rising” in the descriptions of changing fashion, and that the portrayal of women’s clothing, the sister-in-law Winifred’s in particular, was deliciously detailed. (Speaking of Winifred, we thought she was a perfect beast – well, we used a stronger b-word, actually – a wonderfully hateable and horrible character!). Atwood describes the impact WW1 (and 2) had on both the soldiers and the women left behind; the helplessness of all involved, the unprepared-ness for the trauma of loss, the resulting isolation and disconnection people felt.

We loved the individual characters; beastly Winifred, the strangeness of Iris’s sister Laura, the sound aphorisms and resolute no-nonsense commentary of wonderful Reenie, who brought warmth, comic relief, and something concrete to hold on to in the midst of the emotional turmoil Iris went through. The class contempt Laura feels towards Iris's hard-headed industrialist husband is cleverly expressed in snide, aside remarks - with few words we get a complete picture. We also loved the powerful similes, and expressions like "baleful weather" expressed perfectly a dreary November or February day.

One group member commented that she did not enjoy the novel within the novel (the excerpts of Laura’s “The Blind Assassin”; technically a novel within a novel within this novel) at all, but that that fact did not hamper her enjoyment of the book one little bit – it fit the story overall.

It was impressive how all the different strands of the book pulled together perfectly in the end. We witnessed the changes in the narrator with awe – Iris develops from her initial naivety to a mature character without losing any of her unique voice, and all the ambiguous bits of information come together in a finale that is the opposite of rushed. In fact, one group member commented that as far as 50-100 pages from the end, the big revelation that turns the entire book on its head is casually, confidently, dropped into the text, and the reader is left to work out the implications in her own time; this shows a respect for the reader’s intelligence, and is a sensational feat exactly because the casual reveal so far from the end looks like the opposite of sensational.

However, some of us thought that the novel was getting repetitive and overlong, especially towards the end when Iris elaborates on her ailments and bad moods - we thought that it might have been a deliberate attempt at conveying her feelings by making the reader feel as weary and bored as the narrator, but more likely the reason was lack of rigorous editing!

Overall however, we praised the confident handling of the dramatic aspects of the story, a nonchalance that shows that, in one of our group member's words, Margaret Atwood is a "mistress of her own material", confident in the manner and pace of her narrator's revelations, and her narrator's lack of sentimentality. We all came away impressed with Ms Atwood, and eager to read more of her books - for most members this was their first Atwood book, and everyone was intent to read more. We finished the group chatting about holidays in Canada: its bitter winters, entertaining/frightening encounters with bears, wolves, and moose, and examples of some other writers the country has produced that are among our member's favourites, namely Saul Bellow and Steven Pinker. Margaret Atwood has provided us with a great group meeting all round.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

"The Secret Place" by Tana French, September 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

The Secret Place is a murder mystery set in a girls’ boarding school in Dublin. It is the latest in a series of novels by Tana French involving the Dublin Murder Squad. Unlike other detective series these novels do not have the same detectives as the main protagonists (e.g. Rebus, Dalgliesh, Wexford) although characters may reappear. This time the police officers are Conway, a female murder squad detective and Moran, from the missing persons squad.

Our reading group felt that the murder mystery was not the real focus of the novel; it is about relationships. The central whodunit is a framework on which to look at how a variety of relationships work. We have Conway and Moran, both misfits in their own way, both clever and ambitious, both working class, yet so very different. It was felt that the book was at its strongest when focussing on this pair. We all liked the strong feminist aspect of Conway, a non-conformist who won’t compromise in order to fit in and be popular. The narrator is Moran and his voice was authentic, we felt French really pulled off writing as a man. By the end of the novel there is clearly genuine mutual respect between Conway and Moran and perhaps the beginnings of true friendship but refreshingly absolutely no hint of romantic involvement.

The contrast between Conway and Moran’s responses to the upper middle class surroundings of the school was also well written. Conway is prickly, she clearly dislikes many of the people there and is dismissive of their sensibilities. She bristles when having to deal with them and finds the place oppressive. Moran on the other hand finds the old building and the art on the walls beautiful and he aspires to be comfortable in that environment. French nicely inverts the usual stereotypes and we have Moran as the empathetic one and Conway as the gruff, tough cop.

Moran is approached by a schoolgirl, Holly, whom he knows from an earlier case. She brings him a message she’s spotted pinned on the eponymous “secret place”, a noticeboard in the school where the girls can express their feelings. The message says “I know who killed him” and refers to the murder of a boy in the school grounds the previous year. Conway had been the detective on that case and she and Moran go into the school to try to discover the identity of the author of the note.

There are 2 groups of friends, four in each, on whom the attention is focussed. Much of the story is told through social media and text messages and teenage dialogue. Our group was divided on how successfully this was done: how true to life was the slang? Was this just an adult’s view of how teenagers speak and behave? We felt there should have been more differentiation in the language as it seems unlikely that teenage girls intelligent enough to run rings around detectives should have such limited vocabulary. On the other hand some scenes seemed very accurate, such as hanging out in the Mall and the varied reactions to it.

At the centre of the novel are the friendships and rivalry between the girls and the groups of girls. As the story unfolds we understand that many mistakes and terrible actions were caused by a need to protect friends at all costs. While some of these may not be believable in ‘real life’ you are swept up in the story as the depth of feeling these girls have for each other is completely credible. The hermetic environment of the boarding school fuels this closeness and it is very well invoked. The evolving sexuality and sexual awareness of all the girls and the discomfort poor Moran feels around these ‘predatory’ girls was palpable.

Beyond the interaction between all the central characters, other relationships were also well depicted. Holly and her father, the tension between Holly’s parents and the effect it has on her are convincing.

There is an element of magical realism in the book which had our group divided as well. Was it necessary? If so, why not carry it through? It moved from being fairly central to the dynamic of one of the friendship groups to being dropped and not mentioned again.

Generally the response to The Secret Place was extremely positive with one reader saying it was one of the best books she’d read with the group and another buying more Tana French. Even the less favourable reactions were tempered by positive comments on some aspects. Overall a hit.

Monday, 18 August 2014

"I Can't Begin To Tell You" by Elizabeth Buchan - August 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

"I can't begin to tell you" by Elizabeth Buchan is set in Denmark at the beginning of World War 2. It is the story of a married woman's struggle to
obey her conscience and do what she believes to be right by resisting the
Nazi occupation in Denmark even though this brings her into conflict with the husband she loves, who does not share her viewpoint. The book raises important questions about obeying one's conscience and the willingness to do so in the face of real danger and risk. It also speaks to us about how we might react in a similar situation. The book suggests that obeying our conscience may involve risk at times but it is the only way to live an authentic life and to live at peace with the consequences of our actions. To act decisively and courageously is very important for us also.

The group did think that the writing was a bit clumsy and disjointed in certain places and that there could have been two separate stories written out of the one book; one about the historical details of the work of the resistance, and another book about the moral dilemma of Kay, the main protagonist. However, some of the threads of the book were woven together cleverly, such as drawing in emotionally the two female code breakers in England to the fate of the agents working in Denmark. There were strong themes in the book of love, betrayal, suffering, loneliness and fear. In the end love proves stronger than betrayal, courage stronger than fear and justice stronger than oppression. This book is not great literature but it is a very moving and thought-provoking book which is easily readable.
By Lydia

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd - July 2014

Jasmina couldn't make it to the group meeting, but emailed her book review in - now that's dedication! Here's her review:

This book was a real pleasure to read; William Boyd's style is clear without being simple. His characters are well formed and Logan Mountstuart, the writer of the diaries we are reading in Any Human Heart, feels like a real character. Throughout his very eventful life he meets real people as well as the fictitious and Boyd plays with his readers: is Nat Tate, the subject of Boyd's book An American Artist, and footnote referenced on page 337 in Any Human Heart, fact or fiction? He's fictional, but we are cleverly manipulated by the author to wonder. There are plenty of other factual and fictional references too, throughout the book, to place Logan in his time and give the reader more knowledge about him and other characters.

Logan's life is fascinating. The reader is given, as Jeremy Paxman on the cover of the Penguin paperback version writes: "A terrific journey through the twentieth century". I agree with Paxman's final comment too, the book is: "Thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable".

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd - July 2014

William Boyd – Any Human Heart

Maybe it was the glorious weather or maybe it was just coincidence, but this July, our usually 8-strong reading group was reduced to just one member, Craig, and myself (Cordula). So I initially thought we’d run out of things to talk about after 10 minutes, not having our usual group input, but I was wrong – somehow, we ended up chatting about Boyd’s 2002 novel for over an hour, and I certainly could have continued for another one at least.

The themes are so many, and the experiences Boyd describes are so multifaceted and richly detailed, that there’s no shortage of incidents and topics to go into. To outline, the novel is a fictional diary of Logan Mountstuart, following his life from his first diary entries as a 10-year old boy born in Uruguay to a Uruguayan mother and British father. The Family moves to Birmingham when he is 10, and he grows up going to boarding school, Oxford, and then taking a variety of jobs (and lovers, marriages, friendships, and celebrity encounters) throughout his life. We follow him sometimes continuously, sometimes sporadically, through WW1, the Great Depression, his tries and successes as an author, through WW2 and his role in it as a spy (following the abdicated King Edward, Duke of Windsor and the Duchess, Wallis Simpson); his time in London, his time in New York (as an arts dealer), an episode in Africa, and, finally, his second time in London and his death.

Just recounting it I could go into so much detail as to fill pages, so I’ll stop myself here and just mention the things that stood out to us the most:

First of all, both of us loved the fantastic writing. Craig pointed out a killer line early on, when the 17-year old Logan writes this effortlessly arrogant sentence in his diary: “I shall now smoke a cigarette behind the squash courts and think some more brilliant thoughts”, which had stood out to both of us as just wonderful, capturing the dismissive, know-it-all haughtiness a teenage boarding schooler would easily possess. We both also thought that throughout the novel, the changing tone illustrates Logan’s maturing nature while retaining his own way of thinking and writing - it’s coherent yet shows his development, his deepening reflections as well as his blind spots. A scene that stood out to me as such a blind spot was the moment when members of the royal family remark to Logan how Duke (then King) Edward should have handled his affair with Wallis Simpson: they think he should have installed her back in America for a year or so, claim to have nothing to do with her any more, then secretly reinstate her in his life in a cosy little flat in London. When Logan expresses his disgust at the duplicity of this, they reply: “He’s the King, he can do what he damn well pleases”. Logan remarks in his diary how amoral and terrible he judges these people to be – remaining utterly unreflective of the fact that he’s practically living that exact story, having married a rich heiress, fathered a son, then met the love of his life and put her up in their cosy little London love-nest for a few years (until his wife discovers the flat and divorces him).

We dissected a good many more individual moments in the novel, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more: Craig pointed out another good line (and an interesting and possibly very true sentiment) when Logan remarks to his (second) father-in-law, that the difference between Americans and Brits is that an American uses his manners to further business relationships and get ahead in life, while the British use theirs in order to protect their privacy. We both agreed that this rang true!

We discussed much more: the amorality of Logan’s friend Peter (his childhood friends set him up to fail!), why Logan marries his rich first wife (he wants to get back at the girl that refused him!), the easily flowing, economical yet richly expressive language, the relaxed ease and the psychological astuteness with which Boyd describes Logan’s sexual encounters and views.

Last, but by no means least, we admired the unique set-up for the novel. We speculated whether this diary, in which Logan meets so many of the big names of the 20th Century, from Hemingway, Woolf, Picasso and Joyce, to working for Ian Fleming and hobnobbing with the former King, was written as a result of leftover research for Boyd’s other books? He seems to have constructed a plausible timeline for these famous names, e.g. citing Woolf’s real-life diaries and Ian Fleming’s correspondence, to account for times and places, and then he inserts this fictional character Logan Mountstuart and makes him meet them all. Wonderfully, Boyd sets up his novel with an editor’s footnotes and commentary, completing the ruse. I remember feeling pleasantly surprised and nudged out of my comfort zone every time I read one of those real-sounding footnotes, mixing fiction and reality. My brain had the biggest “ping”-moment later on in the book, when the novel’s fictional editorial voice inserts a footnote referencing one of Boyd’s own books, which is, funnily enough, another fictional account about a fictional artist ('Nat Tate', yes, derived from the National Gallery and the Tate), also constructed to sound real – and the artist turns up as another character in this book! What a great confusion.

To close, I think I can honestly say that we thoroughly enjoyed having our heads spun about by this alternative take on a history of the 20th century, and were more than happy accompanying Logan on his many endeavours. A very human hero, and an incredibly good book. By Cordula

Thursday, 26 June 2014

"Oh Dear Silvia" by Dawn French - April 2014

This is the story of Silvia Shute who is in a coma after falling off a balcony. We get to know Silvia only through her visitors at the hospital. Through their eyes and voices the story is in turns a comedy, a tragedy, a love story and a mystery.

The group thought it was generally a well rounded story. It was laugh out loud funny in places (as one would expect from Dawn French) but was not a comic novel. Several of the characters telling the story have strong accents (Jamaican, Irish, Thai) and there was some concern about creating comic stereotypes but mostly we thought it was handled well.

The humour allowed some profound insights to be made by people without them being pretentious. Other times the humour was there just for the fun of it. There were some hilarious slap-stick scenes with Silvia’s sister Jo: one involving a stripper, another a dog and a running joke about her hippy alternative remedies. Yet through the humour we come to see how sad Jo is, not only because of her sister’s coma but also the guilt she has been carrying since childhood and their mother’s death.

The plot device of having the main character unconscious with no voice worked well. It gave the story a filmic or theatrical quality – you could easily imagine this being made for television, with each character taking a turn to move the story on.

There was some discussion on how convincing Silvia’s relationship with Cat was. Not everyone was persuaded that Silvia would betray her family for Cat, however manipulative or crazy Cat was. Silvia emerges as a strong-willed, even hard character so why would she allow herself to be distanced from her family?

On the other hand, the emerging love story between Winnie and Ed seemed far more real; we could see why they would be attracted to each other and how the relationship would work.

Silvia’s coldness and Cat’s madness are contrasted well with the kindness of Winnie, Ed, Tia and Cassie. Although Tia is taking financial advantage of her employer, she still takes time to visit her in hospital, talks to her, makes her comfortable. Cassie evolves into a really strong woman, able to get beyond her anger at her mother and forgive her. Her maturity is a wonderful counterpoint to the raw hurt and anger her brother is still suffering and the group felt that his becoming a soldier and going to war was believable.

The enigma surrounding Silvia’s fall – was it an accident, was it deliberate – is explained at the end but does not ring entirely true. We concluded that a possible reading was that Silvia provoked the situation.

Not a great book but some great moments and some good characters.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

"My Dear, I wanted to tell you" by Louisa Young

On the whole, the Clapton Library Book Group thought that this book was a good read, the first seventy pages being seen as "fascinating". Characters were usually well rounded and believable. For one member, the author managed to write one of the most evil mothers in literature in Mrs Orris. Mrs Orris's beautiful but role-less daughter, Julia, was another character that was considered very well written. Julia, in lesser hands, could have been a contemptible character: a failure of a mother concerned only with maintaining and improving her looks. Louisa Young allows the reader to understand Julia and to see that she was trapped; almost as trapped, in her own way, as the men in the trenches. Julia's obsession with her looks acts as a precursor of Riley's and her own fate. The early relationship between Julia and Peter (neither of whom the main characters of the novel) was, for another member of the group, beautiful and erotic.

The author skilfully uses her secondary characters to question and explore major issues: Rose's questioning of the existence of a god that allowed the horrors of war, the sympathetic treatment of homosexuality through the character of Terence and, of course, the role of women through Julia and Rose. In contrast it was Nadine and Riley, the main characters of the book, who received the greatest criticism from us. Riley's behaviour toward Nadine irritated us and their relationship, the backbone of the novel, seemed less understandable/believable than that between Julia and Peter.

On a structural level there were criticisms about the abundance of over long sentences partitioned by commas, which some members of the group found to be an irritation. The denouement of the novel was also likened to a Whitehall farce. The coming together of the disparate characters was seen as clumsy and too much of a coincidence to be believable. However, the main criticism of the book was that the author had not done sufficient research: Riley would not have been in the trenches in November 1914. The group of men that the main character was meant to be a member of did not, in fact, get to the Front until July 1916.
The overall verdict on the book: a good read, but no "Birdsong" or Pat Barker.
By Jasmina

Monday, 14 April 2014

"My Dear, I wanted to tell you" by Louisa Young - May 2014

Every year, London's reading groups can join "CityReadLondon" and receive free books for their reading groups - last year it was "A Week in December" by Sebastian Faulks, the year before it was Oliver Twist for Charles Dickens' 200th Birthday.

This year, all of London's reading groups (that sign up to CityRead) are reading the World War I novel "My Dear..." by Louisa Young. Pop back onto our blog in May to read what Clapton library's reading group thought about it.

See this page for events in all the participating London boroughs:

"Oh Dear Silvia" by Dawn French - April 2014

Our group met on 3rd April and discussed the book - review to come very soon!

"The Wedding Gift" by Marlen Suyapa Bodden - March 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

This book divided our book group. One member, who found the text interesting, liked and felt a sense of identification with it, “couldn’t stop reading”, and completed the novel in two sessions; others were far less complimentary with a number of readers unable, or unwilling, to read to the end. This reader was in the latter group finding the text, due to its written style, a challenge to complete.

Whilst everyone agreed that there was a good and deserving story in The Wedding Gift , a number of the group felt strongly that it had not been brought out by the author. What the story required was a far better writer! Criticisms of Boden’s writing were strong, it was passionless, rushed, careless, sugar coated, flawed in plot, and relied far too heavily on dialogue. Boddn, it was felt, was nt great at building up suspense, nor was she able to make voices distinct; at times it was difficult, some readers found, to know who was speaking to whom. In relying so heavily on dialogue she failed to develop sound descriptive passages, which, if used, would have allowed readers to have had a sense of character and place. Why, for example, was there no description of the sea or Sarah’s reaction to seeing it for the first time in her life?

The fact that very few of the characters were developed (including Sarah and Theodora, the main characters), angered readers, but this lack of development was not limited to characters alone. The plot left the majority of the group wondering how certain situations had been reached. Its denouement was to be found in two paragraphs at the end of page 461 and the beginning of 462, but where was the lead up to it that would have made it believable? It simply was not there – the reader was just told. And by not being believable the writer did not do sufficient service to attacking misogyny and racism, the two very serious, but unsuccessfully challenged, themes in her book. By Jasmina

"The Gallery of Vanished Husbands" by Natasha Solomons - February 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

All agreed that the book was competent, engaging and easy to read. Juliet certainly posed as a cipher for the other characters in the book . But some found her unbelievable as a main character . The hyperbole she used for her role in the London gallery was alike to Valerie, Charles’s mother. This supported misgivings about her character.

The conflict between the woman that ran a London gallery and the traditional Jewish wife was interesting and threw some light on how difficult it was to be an Aguna following the war. The use of composition that describes the transition of thinking between the 50s and 60’s was thought to be brave and skilful. However the overall opinion also was that the author had possibly attempted too much. Given her authors’ note we didn’t believe that Rosie was done justice too.

Leonard, the son of her missing husband George summoned much more empathy to his character, some thought more could have been done with this and with the relationships with his dads’ other family. Frieda’s frustration too was very real and we could understand why a teenage girl who could not find her mother in so many portraits rebelled in the only way left to her.

There were mixed opinions about the many descriptive passages of the paintings . Some found the visualisations wonderful , others thought them superficial . There did seem to be some correlation between the many artists behind the very different paintings of one Juliet and the newspaper cutting of the different missing husbands (as summed up in the book title) but if this was intentional it served for many to make Juliet less real.

Most found Max a far more believable and moving character, one reader described the story of Max’s sketchbook and its loss , as a piece of gold in a box of imitation jewellery. His dramatic departure from Juliets’ life and the final painting found after his death , added more resonance to the gallery and to the novel.

All the members of Clapton group agreed they’d happily read more of the author's works. By Ann

It is written in an easy-to-read style, both in print and vocabulary choice. It moved along at a good pace, with enough detail to familiarise the reader to the characters, but not in a prolongued way. I enjoyed reading the story, and enjoyed the way chapters jumped back and forth in time. It was well-written and interesting, I would recommend this book to others. By Michelle

"Meet Mr. Mulliner" by PG Wodehouse - January 2014

By now, we were on our fourth Wodehouse book, and for most of us there was relief that we were moving onto another author. The phrase "one trick pony" was used to describe the impression that all the books were the same story told over and over with slight variation and several people said they had been unable to finish the book. We are uncomfortable with his class based settings and his casual racism and misogyny. Interestingly, for others Meeting Mr Mulliner had been a case of saving the best for last. At the risk of sounding heretical it was even said that this book could be enjoyed because there was no Jeeves!

Once we started to talk about the stories the Wodehouse weariness dissipated. While laughing at the vision of a bishop and a headmaster off their heads on a large dose of "Buck-U-Uppo", we reflected on the casual way drugs and alcohol are used by Wodehouse characters. No one gets into trouble for it, the behaviour is completely accepted. This is in stark contrast to present day media interest in the behaviours of our celebrities.

On the cover of the edition we read there is a quote by Christopher Hitchens: "P.G. Wodehouse is the gold standard of English wit.", and we were asked how we felt about that. First thoughts were that the statement was hyperbole, Wodehouse is enjoyable but hardly a genius. Yet as we thought about it we realised just how rich his language is and how wonderfully visual his writing is. Add to that how enduring his characters are; Jeeves has passed into the vernacular and everyone knows who he is even if they have never heard of P.G. Wodehouse. We began to understand why he is so revered and loved by many. We are however pleased to be moving on to another author!

"Uncle Fred in the Springtime" by PG Wodehouse - December 2013

For our third Wodehouse book, Clapton library's reading group read Uncle Fred in the Springtime:

By now, blasphemous as it may sound, we were in danger of suffering a touch of Wodehouse fatigue! Most members made some comment to the effect of: "Seems like we've been here before..." when we started reading the book. Here's another set of love-tussles and other aristocratic "problems" to be sorted out with a clever/idiotic scheme by the hapless hero. Only this time, the main character, Pongo Twistleton, hasn't got the Bertie Wooster charm, or his optimistic wit, nor does he deliver the same sardonic exchanges with his counterpart Uncle Fred, as Bertie does with Jeeves.

Nobody liked Pongo, we thought he was just a pessimistic bore. However, luckily there was Uncle Fred, the real character of the story, he delivered where Pongo flopped! Some of us even admitted to falling a little bit in love with him. He sparkles, throwing himself with gusto into each chaotic scenario he encounters, or rather: helps create. And with his help, by the middle of the book the usual wit and the twists and turns of the brilliantly structured plot won us back round to admiring Wodehouse's craft.

Apart from Uncle Fred, we felt that a couple of the characters could have been expanded upon a bit more; all of us admitted to getting confused with the cast of the book, and were then relieved that we weren't the only ones thrown by all the eccentric uncles and clueless nephews. Which of the uncles threw the eggs? Which one's got the pig? And while we're mentioning the pig - why couldn't the pig owner just say to his friend, "Excuse me, but I'd really like to keep my pig"? What unwritten rules of politeness prohibit him from standing his ground over his own property? Also, why are there never any mothers or fathers in Wodehouse's books? It teems with aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, but parents are mostly absent. We agreed that there's something intrinsically funny about aunts and uncles, but why?

We were also interested in how Wodehouse introduces the first "common", non-aristocratic character in Mustard Pott. We all enjoyed the impromptu betting shop he creates during a pub breakfast. All in all, a very enjoyable read, guaranteed to lift you up. We had one issue regarding these newly published editions that our entire group agreed on: It would be helpful to have a blurb on the back of the book that actually tells you which series (i.e. Jeeves and Wooster, or Blandings Castle) and which particular book you're holding in your hands. Even at the back of the books, where Wodehouse's publications are listed, they aren't listed in chronological order. It would be helpful to have a newly published book and a bit of a Wodehouse guide all in one! By Cordula

"Joy in the Morning" by PG Wodehouse - November 2013

Two of our members collected the group's thoughts about "Joy in the Morning":

Lydia: We agreed that we found Bertie was more well-rounded as a character in this book. He is also more able to solve his own problems without too much help from Jeeves. He successfully avoids marriage to Florence and avoids being sent to prison as a consequence of stealing Stilton Cheesewright's police uniform in order to attend the fancy dress ball. Names of places such as Steeple Bumpleigh and East Wibley add to the satirical nature of the book.

The colourful character of Uncle Percy gives dramatic tension to the story and there are amusing incidents such as his meeting with the American business man J. Chichester Clam in the potting shed, a most unlikely place for striking a huge financial deal. The young boy Edwin adds some amusing incidents such as burning down the cottage by accident and putting a porcupine in Bertie's bed.

The story is rather drawn out in parts and it is not until the end of the book that Bertie is finally spared marriage to Florence. The book ends on a high note as Bertie's world is again set right as the birds sing again and the sun shines down on him. It is an entertaining and amusing book and is easily readable.

Cordula: I enjoyed that the plot wasn't told in hindsight as much, but was more directly experienced. What I enjoyed most were the endless twists and turns of the plot points, big and small ones alike, that I couldn't foresee. At one point during the middle of the book I was in danger of getting a trifle bored, because I had a Right Ho, Jeeves deja-vu experience; I felt we'd witnessed Bertie make that silly assumption here and finagle this love-merry-go-round there and put his foot in it everywhere, before. But then Joy in the Morning gathered its speed and surprised me on pretty much every page, pulling my expectations about, which was such good fun. I've since started reading Wodehouse's Berlin Broadcasts, on the Wodehouse Society website, and am fast becoming a PGW convert.

"Right Ho, Jeeves!" by PG Wodehouse - October 2013

Our first Blog Post ever! This is what started it all off: The Reading Agency http://readinggroups.org./ supplied our Reading Group in Clapton Library, Hackney, with 4 free sets of PG Wodehouse books - in return they asked us to write a short blog post about what our group liked, disliked, and dissected about them. We got a surprise book every month. It all started with this one, "Right Ho, Jeeves!". When the blog project finished, our group had been bitten by the bug... and we decided to continue blogging about the books we read each month.

Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy sharing our thoughts!

Clapton's Reading Group definitely had a consensus about Right Ho, Jeeves: Laugh-out-loud funny. Only one member had previously read some Wodehouse, and everyone who hadn't was immensely glad to have been introduced to the playful language and extraordinary wit. Some of the best-loved scenes were Bertie Wooster's telegram exchange with his straight-talking aunt, being chased by his friend Tuppy Glossop round and round a garden bench, and playing with his rubber ducky in the bath; Jeeves's sparsely worded, sardonic wit (he really just needs one word - "Sir?" - to send Bertie into an indignant fit) and, of course, the climactic and hilarious prize-giving speech by the awkward, reclusive newt-aficionado, Augustus "Gussie" Fink-Nottle (or Spink-Bottle, as Bertie's aunt refers to him). In that last scene, Wodehouse gets the balance just right as Gussie veers perfectly between drunkenly slurring insults at everyone, but also staying restrained enough not to go over the top into a slapstick routine. A thoroughly enjoyable read! We also talked about the wider political and social circumstances Wodehouse was writing in, and wondered if his light-hearted novels were making a point of providing comic relief in desperate times, or whether he was genuinely ignorant about the 1920s Depression or the impending Nazi rule in the 1930s. Was Wodehouse aware how ridiculous and out of touch with reality his aristocratic characters were, or was he merely one of them, reporting from within? Whichever his thoughts, all of us in the group just savoured the perfectly crafted screwball comedy, and the outstanding use of language. By Cordula

Previous to the Wodehouse Project, we reveiwed:

"Five Days" by Douglas Kennedy:
"I enjoyed the book. I recognised a lot of situations and feelings. I think it is very well written."

"An easy read, but I wasn't convinced by the characters. I was profoundly irritated by the list of synonyms and didn't believe in the conversations. The match-up of personal stories was also incredible. However, the ending had some credibility. I expected more, given his reputation. I'd only recommend this to others as a beach read."

" Cleverly composed and fluently written. Easily read but never boring. It clearly illustrates the compassion and deeply thorough nature of the main character in both her job as a radiologist and as a mother. This insigth into her life brings her through relationships as an informed survivor; where some other characters falter. I'd recommend this book to others as a good train/tube/bedtime read, not too demanding, but with enough "love story" grip to keep reading. The end is assuringly informative."

"I enjoyed this book. I liked the way that it did not have a standard "happy ending". And I thought the author managed to write from a female perspective in a sympathetic way. I'd recommend this book as a gentle and thought-provoking read."

"I have some good and some not so good to say about the book. I was hooked on the story, which is of course what you want from any book, but at the same time I was often taken out of the story and left rolling my eyes - at the synonyms for example, and also at the overly matched-up parallel stories of the two main characters! She has a difficult son, he has a difficult son. She lost the love of her young life, he did too. It was a bit too much. Also, the main character's children seem to come through all the family difficulties with a bit too much ease, understanding, and a good relationship with their mother, which seemed a bit rose-tinted. However, the ending, the way she deals with her problems and comes through them, was very instructive for anyone suffering heartache or mild depression, I thought! And as I said, the book kept me hooked, so he obviously did something right. Not a literary gem, but I would recommend it as an easy read."

"Dreamz from the Endz" by Faiza Guene:
I would never have selected this book as a library book, but I am glad that I read it. The language irritated me as my working life was spent trying to get East End children to use standard English as well as non-standard. I'm afraid that I wasn't really interested in Ahleme or the other characters that much. They seemed very two-dimensional, but I did like the fact that the author did not portray Algeria as good and France bad. She was more sophisticated than that.