LitWits book group meets the first Thursday of the month at Reading Matters Bookshop. We’re a friendly group reading both modern and classics. Check this page for the date of our next meeting. If you think you would like to join us please contact us at the shop or via this website.
The book this month is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackary
William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair depicts the anarchic anti-heroine Beky Sharpe cutting a swathe through the eligible young men of Europe, set against a lucid backdrop of war and international chaos.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born and educated to be a gentleman, but gambled away much of his fortune while at Cambridge. He trained as a lawyer before turning to journalism. He was a regular contributor to periodicals and magazines and Vanity Fair was serialised in Punch in 1847-8
The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley
Keeping secrets is a dangerous game . . .
1995, London. When Sir James Harrison, one the greatest actors of his generation, passes away at the age of ninety-five he leaves behind not just a heartbroken family but also a secret so shocking, so devastating that it could rock the English establishment to its core . .
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can and cannot do. Along the way she befriends Svetlana, a cosmopolitan Serb, and obsesses over Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary.
Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a failed writer, and how baffling love is. At once clever and clueless, Batuman’s heroine shows us with perfect hilarity and soulful inquisitiveness just how messy it can be to forge a self.
Home Fire by Kamilla Shamsie
‘Elegant and evocative … A powerful exploration of the clash between society, family and faith in the modern world’ Guardian’. There is high, high music in the air at the end of Home Fire’ New York Times Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
A Sunday Times bestseller. SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN’S FICTION PRIZE. Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018.
One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.
The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
Who died? I asked, or is it a secret? My mother Vianne Rocher, seeking refuge and anonymity in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her two daughters live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out.
Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes, ruthless, devious and seductive. With everything she loves at stake, Yanne must face a difficult choice; to flee, as she has done so many times before, or to confront her most dangerous enemy… herself.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
By turns savvy, witty and achingly sad, this is a novelist at the top of his game.’ Forced to flee the scandal brewing in her hometown, Catherine Goggin finds herself pregnant and alone, in search of a new life at just sixteen. She knows she has no choice but to believe that the nun she entrusts her child to will find him a better life. Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, or so his parents are constantly reminding him. Unspooling and unseeing, Cyril is a misguided, heart-breaking, heartbroken fool. Buffeted by the harsh winds of circumstance towards the one thing that might save him from himself, but when opportunity knocks, will he have the courage, finally, take it?
In this collection of ten classic murder mysteries from the best crime writers in history, death and mayhem take many festive forms, from the inventive to the unexpected. From a Santa Claus with a grudge to a cat who knows who killed its owner on Christmas Eve, these are stories to enjoy – and be mystified by – in front of a roaring fire, mince pie to hand.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Shortlisted for the MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016. WINNER of the SALTIRE SOCIETY FICTION BOOK of the YEAR 2016.
The year is 1869. Graeme Macrae Burnet tells an irresistible and original story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts seem clear. His Bloody Project is a mesmerising literary thriller set in an unforgiving landscape where the exercise of power is arbitrary.
Review by Lyndsay: A book of beautifully written prose, carefully descriptive of the landscape and history of Culduie, north west Scotland. A slow burn leading to three gruesome deaths and a travesty of a trial. A book that allows you to make up your own mind at the end.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner Booker Prize Winner in 1984,
‘The Hotel du Lac was a dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era. Into the rarefied atmosphere of the Hotel du Lac timidly walks Edith Hope, romantic novelist and holder of modest dreams. Edith has been exiled from home after embarrassing herself and her friends. She has refused to sacrifice her ideals and remains stubbornly single. But among the pampered women and minor nobility Edith finds Mr Neville, and her chance to escape from a life of humiliating loneliness is renewed . . .
Into The Water by Paula Hawkins
The addictive new psychological thriller from the author of The Girl on the Train, the runaway Sunday Times No. 1 bestseller and global phenomenon.
In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help. Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, satisfying read that hinges on the stories we tell about our pasts and their power to destroy the lives we live now.
Review by Jo: This was a very confusing read with the narrative shifting from 1679 to 1983 and 2015. Altogether there were 11 different points of view from various characters. I was halfway through before I got to grips with it. It did get better towards the end but like Girl on the Train I couldn’t identify with any of the characters so I didn’t really care what happened to them!
Cast Iron by Peter May
Book 6 in the Enzo Macleod series. In 1989, a killer dumped the body of twenty-year-old Lucie Martin into a picturesque lake in the West of France. Fourteen years later, during a summer heatwave, a drought exposed her remains – bleached bones amid the scorched mud and slime, but no one was ever convicted of her murder. Now, forensic expert Enzo Macleod is reviewing this stone-cold case – the toughest of those he has been challenged to solve, he opens a Pandora’s box that raises old ghosts and endangers his entire family.
Review by Fiona: I didn’t think this was one of Peter May’s best. Usually he is very good at evoking setting but although the action is set in France I didn’t really get a sense of being in a foreign place. It took me time to get to know the different characters and their relationships, up to that point it was quite confusing. I did get more into the plot as it progressed but I found it an unchallenging read.
Rupture by Ragnar Jonasson
1955. Two young couples move to the uninhabited, isolated fjord of Hedinsfjorour. Their stay end abruptly when one of the women meets her death. The case is never solved. Fifty years later an old photograph comes to light which suggests that the couples may not have been alone after all.
A distinctive blend of Nordic Noir and Golden Age detective fiction…. a economical and evocative prose, as well as some masterful prestidigitation.
Review by Vivienne: In this third offering by Ragnar Jónasson, Icelandic policeman Ari Thor is investigates a cold case from the fifties – the death of a young woman in an isolated fjord valley. Helping him in this endeavour is Isrún, a young news reporter fighting her own demons (she is suffering from a debilitating illness), who is also investigating a case of her own with links to the Icelandic political elite. Disappointingly, the threads of these stories fail to come together to a satisfying finale, which left some readers (myself included) slightly confused. On the other hand, Jónasson continues to open enticing windows on contemporary Iceland for us (waffles and apple puree with skyr sounds good to me!).
Also by the author Snow Blind and Night Blind
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
The author was born in London in 1810 but spent her formative years in Cheshire, Stratford-upon-Avon and the north of England.
Ruth is a novel about grief and shame. In Victorian times a fallen woman is viewed with neither compassion or sympathy. Losing her job and cast out of her home, she bears her child.
Offered the chance of a new life with people who love and respect her, they are at first unaware of her secret. When the father of her child re-enters her life she has to choose between social acceptance and personal pride.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Author of Gone Girl, Gillian’s Dark Places has been described as Wonderful . . . eerily macabre The story of Libby day who was just seven years old when her evidence puts her brother behind bars. Rightly or wrongly? That is what she has had to live with for 24 years after her family was slaughtered.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
One of the few genuine innovations in the history of the novel
Clarrisa Dalloway, elegant and vivacious, is preparing for a party and remembering those she once loved. In another part of London, Septimus Warren Smithis shell-shocked and on the brink of madness.
Past, present and future are brought together one momentous day in June 1923.
(Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, concerns three generations of women affected by this novel by Virginia Woolf.)
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInnerney
This is the book chosen to read over the summer break, copies are still available in the shop.
The winner of the 2016 Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, this is Lisa’s debut novel. Don’t be put off by some of the comments on the cover, it is a superb debut from a new ‘comic’ writer.
Maureen didn’t mean to kill a man, but what can a poor dear do when she is surprised by an intruder and has only a holy stone to hand?
The Heart is a Lonely Place
Carson McCullers’ novel is a powerful exploration of alienation and loneliness in 1930s America. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. Moving, sensitive and deeply humane, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter explores loneliness, the human need for understanding and the search for love.
Wide Sargasso Sea & Night Blind
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. This classic study of betrayal, a seminal work of postcolonial literature, is Jean Rhys’s brief, beautiful masterpiece.
Night Blind is the second novel in the Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jonasson. Dark, chilling and complex this is an extraordinary thriller from an undeniable new talent.
The second in the Dark Iceland series with three more to come – I can’t wait.In the first book, Snowblind, Ari Thor is transferred to this small fishing village as the local police officer. He has difficulty adjusting to the isolation after Reykjavik, although he starts to feel safe in the total darkness of winter. In this second book his skills as a police officer are clear as he investigates the murder of his Inspector. He has trauma in his past, his relationship with Kirsten is complicated and rocky but their small son is possibly the common ground which may yet keep them together.
The Red House
From Mark Haddon the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Time and A Spot of Bother this is a superb book about families and secrets. Two families. Seven days. One house.
This is a novel that is funny, poignant and deeply insightful about human lives.
The Girl With All The Gifts by M R Carey
Emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end but with a heart-warming tenderness is how this book is described as well as tense and fast-paced.
Not every gift is a blessing, every morning Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class and Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointed at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair, she thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite but they don’t laugh – Melanie is a very special girl.
A God in Every Stone
Summer 1914. Young Englishwoman Vivien Rose Spencer is in an ancient land about to discover the Temple of Zeus, the call of adventure and love. Thousands of miles away a twenty year old Pathan, Qayyam Gul, is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian Army. Summer 1915 Viv has been separated from the man she loves; Qayyam has lost an eye at Ypres.They meet on a train to Peshawar unaware that a connection is to be forged between their lives.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Sunday Times Fiction Book of the Year 2015, Winner of The Independent Bookshop Book Award 2015.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
An attention seeking valentine sets off on the toss of a hymn book bringing about a course of events which have dire consequences for the recipient and his rival in the quest for the affections of a beautiful woman.
However, as a result of this, she marries a shepherd with a predelection for leather leggings, large boots and an ill-keeping timepiece.
What would Mr Hardy have thought of this review of his novel!?
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
‘A tragicomedy with back biting black humour.’ Elfrieda von Riessen, or Elf, is an exquisite beauty, adored wife and world famous concert pianist. Younger sister Yoland, known as Yoli, is a semi-failed writer, with teenage children from separate marriages, in the throes of a second divorce.
Ostensibly favoured, Elf possesses a death-wish that persists throughout this remarkable novel. Full of eccentricities and casual apposite quoting of literature, its tragicomedy and humaneness recall the best of John Irving. Toews incorporates her Canadian Mennonite background into all her fiction.
The biting black humour in the ‘I need you’ declaration in a text message from Yoli’s estranged husband, followed by a second message ‘to sign the divorce papers’ is set against Elf’s morbid love of the Romantic poets – the book’s title is from a Coleridge poem lamenting his lost sister.
Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with amazing skill so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. All he has to do is carry out a little espionage and file a few reports, but when his fake reports start coming true Havana is suddenly a very threatening place.
By the author of The Secret life of Bees, this latest book is an extraordinary novel about two exceptional women. Sarah is the middle daughter, the one her mother calls difficult and her father calls remarkable.
On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, hetty is taken from the slave quarters she shares with her mohter, wrapped in lavender ribbons and presented to Sarah as a gift. Sarah knows what she does next will unleash a world of trouble. She also knows she cannot accept.
This powerful, sweeping novel, inspired by real events, and set in the deep south of nineteenth century America, it evokes a shocking contrasts of beauty and ugliness, of righteous people living with daily cruelty they fail to recognise and celebrates the power of friendship.
Pilgrim is the codename for a man who doesn’t exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed up a secret espionage unit for US Intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. But that book will come back to haunt him.
On an island the shape of a teardrop live two sisters. One is the oracle, the other is damned. One is admired far and wide.The other must sacrifice her life to fulfil her destiny. But what will happen when she returns to the island for revenge?
Short listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014, Hannah Kent’s tightly plotted debut leaves its reader immersed in the Icelandic winter of 1829.
In 1829, the last public execution in Iceland took place (you can see the specially commisioned axe in the National Museum in Reykjavik) . A man and a woman were beheaded for a murder committed on a remote farm. There being no prisons in Iceland, the condemned woman had been held for the winter before her execution at a farm where she’d lived as a young girl, guarded by the farmer’s wife and daughters. This is the story of that winter.
The allure of the tale is obvious and one can see why Hannah Kent was haunted by it. The dynamics of a small group of people on an isolated farmstead are disrupted by the arrival of a disturbing stranger who turns out to be uncomfortabley familiar. The landscape of Iceland casts its spell and the tension of Agnes’s approaching death builds from the first sentence: ‘They said I must die ……’
This is not a cheerful read and I’m glad I read it in the spring sunshine rather than the dark depths of winter! But it is beautiful, haunting and compelling writing. Based on real-life events in the 19th century Iceland. The story shifts between the perspective of Agnes herself and those of her various captors.
The writing brilliantly evokes the rawness of an unforgiving landscape in a particular historical period. Descriptions of the dried sheep bladders which form the window panes in the farmhouse; the sacks of salted cod in cellars; and fish being gutted on stones convey the brutality of the landscape, and the vulnerability of the people who live there, with enchanting lyricism.
The landscape features so prominently in the book that it is almost a character in its own right. While the story is set in an icelandic farming community, this could be any small community with its class divisions and conflicts. If you enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s writing then you should enjoy this. And if, like me, you are a lover of books as items to be treasured, treat yourself to the hardbacked version with its beautiful black-edged pages. I don’t want to hide my copy on the bookshelves! Review by by A.B. of Chapel
An overnight plane delay is bad. Having to share your hotel room with a complete stranger is worse. But that is only the beginning of Gaby Struthers’ problems. So how does Lauren Cookson know so much about her? They’ve never met. How does she know that the love of Gaby’s life has been accused of murder. Why is she telling her that he is innocent? And why is she so terrified of Gaby?
Henry Farr is forty years old. He is suburban, average, conventional and desperate to be rid of his wife, Elinor.
Inspired by a grisly episode in Wimbledon’s local history, Farr begins to concoct a recipe for the perfect murder. But his plans go terribley, terribley wrong and before long poor Henry’s best efforts to set himself free see him spiralling wildly out of control.
This book has a certain strain of wicked, black comic humour seething with middle class confusion and existential bewilderment. A bit like a theatrical Brian Rix farce?
Inspired by a badge his father wore as a child – ‘I am Chinese,’ Jamie Ford has written an amazing story based in Seattle shortlyafter the bombing of Pearl Harbour. He encompasses xenaphobian struggles for cultural identity, family loyalties and betrayals. Including factual events involving the internment of people of Japanese heritage into huge campsdeep inside America. At the heart of the story is Henry a 12 year old boy of Chinese heritage and two friendships he develops. One with a black musician and the other a touching and forbidden friendship with Japanese, Keiko.
I loved this book, it wrapped itself around me and I didn’t want the story to end. I would love to know what happens next! Review by by H.W. of Chinley
A man struggling with bereavment; his wife killed in a most unfortunate way. It is handled with humour, tinged with helpless acceptance. It makes you think about life…
We have all been here before: all is not quiet on the Western Front. Pat Barker is haunted by the wholesale destruction of lads and landscape – and how art can (and did) depict the First World War.
It is more than 20 years since Regeneration, the first part of her award-winning trilogy, was published. Five years ago she returned to the trenches in Life Class. and now her vew novel re-introduces us to students Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and their teacher at the Slade, Henry Tonks.
Once again the story skillfully moves between oast and present seamlessly weaving fact and fiction. Elinor, Paul and Kit are traumatised people. Even when the guns fall silent, these survivors are destined to fight their own battles for a long time.
The reading group in this novel is really just a device to bring together these women, have them tell their stories and develop relationships with each other. The book opens with a quote from Margaret Atwood ‘The real, hidden subject of a book group discussion is the members themselves.’
Like the women in this novel’s reading group, the lives of fellow book club members have unfolded during many a meeting and they have looked to the group, at times, to provide emotional sustenance in difficult times. The books mentioned are given a very light touch by the reading group and there is no real literary criticism at their meetings but the books are always a backdrop to the scenes and to each of their lives.
Not meant to be a serious deep meaningful insight into Book/Reading Groups but a warm, often funny touching novel about women learning to read between the lines ….