An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris

Of the six members at this get-together, half of them found that the subject matter did not make for an easy read over the Christmas holidays and they did not finish the book. However, the other readers found it to be a compelling read and very much enjoyed both the story and the way in which it was told.

The narrative was found to be a slow burner at the start, which picked up pace as Picquart’s investigations progressed.

The majority of the group’s members had not read any Robert Harris before and opinion was divided over who would try another of his titles (e.g. Enigma, The Ghost Writer, Archangel and so on). This led to a side conversation on Bletchley Park (where Enigma was largely based) and people expressing an interest in visiting this location. While most found the style of the novel very readable, some found the large number of characters to be confusing. The ‘cast list’ was helpful here.

Picquart was admired for his strong moral code and his courage in being willing to give up his career, his relationship, and even his life (when he realised he was being led into a desert ambush) for his beliefs, in pursuing his investigation into the truth of the allegations against Dreyfus.

In contrast, while we felt sympathy and compassion for Dreyfus and his appalling treatment on Devil’s Island, Dreyfus himself was quite an unsympathetic character, especially at the end of the book, when, in the climactic meeting with Picquart, he did not express any thanks for the efforts to release him but wanted restoration, and even promotion, of his rank instead. He was a broken man after his imprisonment, but he did recover, and the belief of his family and the support of the French liberal intellectuals meant that he was never forgotten.

Jacquie remarked how interesting she found it when an author takes real events and fictionalises them. However, this also raises the question: how much is the truth massaged; for instance, was Picquart’s affair with Pauline true?

Comments were also made about the senior army officers – their self-satisfaction and the scale of the conspiracy constructed around Dreyfus, who was a perfect scapegoat.

The political background of the novel was also interesting to the group – the French/German tensions of that period, and the ‘outsider’ status of the Alsatians (Picquart/Dreyfus) – against our foreknowledge that the First World War was not far off.

Jacqui likes historical fiction and biographies, so this title appealed to her and she could envision it as a powerful TV miniseries, in which the courtroom aspect of the narrative would work especially well.

The author’s use of the present tense throughout gives the story a particular sense of immediacy. By the conclusion, Harris makes it clear that none of the main protagonists in the story were untouched by what had happened, whether it was the initial cover up or the subsequent conspiracy, with some dramatic consequences (for example, the fates of Henry and Labori).

Towards end of the meeting, Jacqui mentioned that, knowing that the characters were real people had inspired her to need to see them. She circulated pictures from a website ( & of the main characters, and told us that Picquart died in 1914 as the result of a fall from a horse. People commented on how closely the individuals resembled their expectations. Copies of the original documents (the ‘petit bleu’ etc.) are also available there.

It was fascinating to think that this case was one of the first high-profile media causes célèbres, such that it was subsequently studied by schoolchildren in their history lessons. It is hard to think of a modern parallel, although comparisons were drawn between Devil’s Island and Guantanamo. Reading this story made the current publicity surrounding anti-Semitism in Europe particularly resonant.

Overall, the volume provoked a lively discussion and was an interesting contrast with the genres covered in recent meetings.


A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String by Joanne Harris

This is the second collection of short stories (the first being Phillip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm Fairytales) that the book club has done, but this one spanned many genres and subjects in its deceptively slim body: fantasy, realism, retellings, even horror. Even as everyone had their favourites, the two stories we agreed on were those starring Hope and Faith, the two indomitable residents of the Meadowbank Home. The opening story of the collection, River Song, was considered one of the less successful ones.

This led to a conversation about whether the ordering of the stories worked. For some people, it reinforced the sheer breadth and vitality of the writer’s imagination, and helped fire up their own. For others, it amplified the sense of reading snippets, rather than getting their teeth into a satisfyingly meaty narrative; a lack of amity with the short story genre magnified by the book’s ordering.

Which stories could have been extended? The two Aspects stories: Rainy Days and Mondays and Wildfire in Manhattan star characters already present in her full-length ‘Rune’ books. The stories involving Faith and Hope, as well as those about the nameless narrator we first meet in There’s No Such Place as Bedford Falls could also bear the weight of additional details and fleshed out back stories. But some of the others, such as Cookie, or The Game, derive their effectiveness from the horror of not letting the reader know, leaving them in the presence of multiple possibilities and ambiguities. What is that ‘thing’ Maggie holds? What actually is the game, and is the danger (and the fear of the attendant consequences) internal (addiction) or external (someone else manipulating addiction)? There were little details that jumped out at the reader: the station cafe from where the unnamed writer acquires his cat muse resonated with those who had encountered places like that, whereas the story Would You Like to Reconnect brought about a discussion about memorialisation in the digital age.

The covers of the American and British editions of the books differed substantially, a phenomenon we have noticed with a lot of the other books too. The American edition was brightly coloured, and seemed to feature the bench on which most of Dryad is told (lived?). The British edition was more sombre in its use of colours; even though it too featured a bench, it also featured a bird pecking at something just out of focus. This also led to a conversation about colours used on covers: bold gold type seemed to be associated with thrillers, as if signalling their ‘sensationalist’ content, whereas light (or white) covers weren’t encouraged because of their propensity to get soiled or marked easily in their physical editions, or merge into the background of most website designs in their digital formats.

Those who had read Joanne Harris’ work before (the three books in the series which started with Chocolat, as well as the Rune books) found flashes of her trademark style in this book too. Opinion was divided amongst those for whom this was an introduction to her work as to whether they would go on to read more.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

The book club has always set out to do books of varying lengths, written in different styles and genres, and dealing with variable subjects. Completely by accident, we met all our aims by going from a hefty tome spanning almost the entire breadth of America to a much shorter book that begins on the border of a ‘Faerie’ much darker than the reader first realises.

One of the biggest (pun intended) issues the readers faced with the book was how slight it felt. The first few chapters feel properly fleshed out, but the rest of the narrative feels rushed. This is especially evident since, from the very beginning, it seems fairly evident where the story is headed; the main interest is in how it unfolds. On a positively blasphemous note for a book club, the film version was considered to have more to get into: there were characters and subplots missing from the book (ironic since several of us had copies whose covers featured the actors playing the characters), which seemed unusual since the film script was written first. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth and Joanne Harris’ Runemarks trilogy were cited as examples of retellings of well-known fairy or mythic tales that went on fascinating narrative journeys of their own.

This also meant that the characters themselves lacked heft, and didn’t get to become much more than ciphers. The ‘hairy man’, for example, disappears completely even though without him, Tristran’s quest would have ended before it started. However, when there is some development in a subplot, as in Lady Una’s story, her metamorphosis at the end seemed unlike her portrayal in the rest of the book.

Even though Wall itself was considered dull, everyone liked the idea of the gap that allows entry into Faerie, even though the latter turns out to be even more dark and dangerous than it is is beautiful. This duality is reflected in two particular scenes that render the book’s positioning unclear. The style and tone of the book, for the most part, fits the book for juvenile readers as well, but the sex scene (no matter how subtly done) and the scene with the unicorn make that categorisation uncomfortable.

This book is not typical of Neil Gaiman’s body of work, so perhaps not the best suited as an introduction to his work. Recommendations to his ‘representative’ work were Neverwhere or American Gods.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Synopsis of discussion:

  • Polarisation of opinion, both by recommenders, and members of the book club
  • Style, and therefore, reading experience
  • Theo (and his various relationships)
  • The Barbers
  • Boris
  • Physical vs e-books
  • The ending

This has been one of the longer books the book club has tackled, and despite very different reactions, everyone got through the book more quickly than they expected to, with one exception. Where some readers looked forward to reading a bit more of the book each night, drawn in by the story-telling and characterisation and others, even as they felt bludgeoned by the sheer scale of the ugliness depicted in the book were drawn, like Theo, the central character, to art galleries as redeeming spots of beauty, the dissenting voice called it ‘overblown’ and a miasma of ‘vodka and vomit’. This polarisation was reflected in the few reviews the book club looked at when deciding to read this book; there too, the positive reactions, on the whole, outnumbered the negative ones.

Even those who enjoyed, and finished the book, however, found certain things problematic. Although they sympathised with Theo, and understood his bent towards self-destruction as he faces loss after loss of those important to him, readers felt the extended scenes of drug abuse went on too long and were difficult to read. Others were disappointed at the inconclusiveness of his relationship with Pippa, given how central to his imaginative world, and therefore to his emotional survival, she is. Whilst Theo’s idolisation of his dead mother is understandable, especially when compounded by survivor’s guilt, and the book uses her as a motif to signal turning points in the book, it was felt that the division of blame between his parents may not have been as clear cut as it initially appeared. By Theo’s own unwitting account, she was not always easy to live with, and her relationship with the lawyer who holds money in trust for him may not have been entirely professional. (Also, the sub plot involving this inheritance peters out mid narrative, and is quietly forgotten, even though it has a role in Theo becoming a complete orphan.) Hobie was one of the few characters everyone agreed about, even though he too ends up letting Theo down by being too wrapped up in his own interests.

The Barbers elicited mixed reactions, with some readers finding them superficial and hard to engage with (with the exception of Andy) whilst others wanted to move in with them. Mrs Barber’s comment that father and son were very similar was thought to be very accurate.

Boris got a bit irritating at the end of the book, although his presence was very necessary to provide the massive plot twist leading to the climax of the book. The boys’ extended unsupervised drugs binge in Las Vegas when they first met seemed a bit unbelievable given that later on, in a city as vast and crowded as NYC, Theo manages to bump into every single person he ever knew there as a child.

Quite apart from the notion that beauty as encapsulated in art can be a touchstone for somebody’s life, the actual painting which lends its name to the book is considered crucially important as a physical artefact, which explains the many people throughout the book who attempt to relieve Theo of it for their own purposes. This led to a discussion amongst the book group as to the ways in which books as physical objects function as artefacts. Mirroring a conversation that cropped up when the group read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, it was agreed that certain beloved favourites could only be truly enjoyed as ‘real books’. Despite their convenience, it is hard to curl up properly with an e-reader.

The ending of the book was both satisfying, in that the story came full circle, but also felt a bit rushed and pat, given the elongation of the central sections. On the whole, it was considered a good book, with one reader calling it their favourite out of all the books read over the past several months.

Before I go to sleep by SJ Watson

This choice came about on the recommendation of Jacqui, who had herself come across it on a chance recommendation. It was generally considered a book that kept readers absorbed, even though the subject matter meant it couldn’t really be called an ‘easy’ read. The journals – the books within the book – were generally considered the strongest parts of the book, which elicited a majority positive reaction, although some people did wonder if it did quite live up to the hype preceding it. But that is a whole other discussion for another time.

Continue reading Before I go to sleep by SJ Watson

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Some of the topics covered:

  1. Structure of the book;
  2. Tone and language (unsurprisingly, the first two points kept seguing into each other, and my notes reflect that);
  3. Favourite set piece scenes.

This book was the book club’s first ‘classic’, with an original publication date of 1889. It was also the book that had the most straightforward name recognition as a ‘comic’ or ‘funny’ book,* and the general response to the book was positive, though some readers were more enthusiastic than others (with Jacquie calling it her second favourite classic of all time, behind only Pride and Prejudice).

Continue reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

  • Mixture of new and old readers
  • Vast variation on reactions
  • Different covers: led to discussion of AV adaptations colouring reading
  • Descriptions of war/tunnelling: fed into personal family memories and memories of working in the archives
  • Writing style: at strongest when sparse
  • Responses to characters
  • Comparison with Toby’s Room (the book club’s other WWI read)
  • Sense of an ending

[As the book club enters its second year, the increasing animation of the discussions is starting to reflect the members’ comfort with the notion that constructive disagreement only leads to a more fruitful conversation. A wider variety of topics is thus getting covered, and so, I thought it might be helpful to have a road map of the major themes. That is why I’ve provided the list above, and will do so in future minutes.]

Continue reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

It was generally agreed that this book had the most intriguing title of the books the book club did (and we have had titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). It was also agreed that the writing style made the book a deceptively ‘easy’ read (and easy to forget that it was a translation), and that made readers want to get acquainted with more of the author’s writing.

The discussion seemed to naturally divide itself  into

  • the book’s tone/atmosphere
  • standout scenes
  • Misha the penguin.

Continue reading Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Shatter by Michael Robotham

Unfortunately, this was unanimously the book club's least favourite book so far. No one could see why the book ranked so universally high in reviews on websites such as Amazon and Goodreads. Given the very high level of misogyny and violence and generally demeaning attitudes towards women (even O'Loughlin's wife), perhaps many of the reviewers were men, who were therefore approaching the book from a perspective that this book club couldn't?

The main issues that the book club faced with the book were disappointment that the execution fizzled out after a very promising start, a plot that had many holes,+ a lopsided use of details,* sawdust characters.#

The narrative lost a lot of its tension after its gripping start; although some of the technical details and information were interesting, it was also disappointing that the obvious person turned out in the end to be guilty. All of these factors put together meant that the set piece scenes too fell totally flat.

Continue reading Shatter by Michael Robotham

The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott

The general consensus was that this book was ‘hard going’ and difficult to finish. One of the major reasons for this was the handling of the different time strands and multiple storylines. In spite of this, it engendered some interesting discussion. Some people found that they preferred some of the chapters as stand-alone stories and would have liked the author to concentrate on those – for instance, the Hess storyline. Most of the characters did not create a great deal of interest or empathy with the readers, although the relationship between Larry and Sharleen’s son, Martin, was an exception. Jacquie felt that the late-blooming romance between Larry and Mary-Lou was unconvincing and she did not particularly care about them, which was a sentiment echoed by several others. However, Liz felt that the fact that Larry was still trying to win Mary-Lou’s approval after many years of wasted opportunity rang true.

Continue reading The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott