With our December zoom last week, another year of our Book Group came to an end – we did manage to have two in person meetings sitting in a pub beer garden, until that got too cold. We’ve retreated back to zoom for now, but fingers crossed for the spring. I’ve been going since 2004, it started several years prior to that! You can see a list of everything we’ve read since I joined here. We’re always open to new members based in and around Abingdon – read my page and drop me an email if you’re interested. Back in April 2020, we started working our way through the alphabet, having just reached U this month, and U was for…
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
It’s fair to say–that although our book group all found this novel fascinating for its story of Cora, a runaway slave, and the secret network that helped her–most of us didn’t love it. However, it is a great book group choice because there is plenty to discuss.
What stood out to us was when it really brought home how slave-catching was a purely financial transaction after a shocking incident late on in the novel. Those that helped runaway slaves were always in such danger too. Cora was a difficult character to like though. It’s a very episodic novel with a new adventure at each stop of the imagined underground railroad, although a huge network to help slaves escape did exist. I found the section set in South Carolina particularly fascinating, where Cora is sold the line that this state is more enlightened, but eventually discovers a secret sterilisation programme at its heart. Also here, she ends up working as a living exhibit in the museum which was perhaps more demeaning than being an enslaved maid.
Most of us would read something else by Whitehead, I have his latest Harlem Shuffle which sounds really fun. Personally, I preferred Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (reviewed for Shiny here) from a couple of years ago – which also features a runaway slave from the Caribbean, which admittedly was less totally grim, and more of an adventure.
Source: Own copy – Fleet paperback, 366 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild
This was our ‘T’ book, and was very much a breath of fresh air. It was shortlisted last year for the Everyman Bollinger Prize for Comic Fiction. Essentially a modern take on Nancy Mitford, it’s the story of the Trelawney family – a Cornish name with some literary history – from Squire Trelawney in Treasure Island to Sybill in Harry Potter. Rothschild’s Trelawneys are the owners of a crumbling family pile on the Cornish coast, their family seat for centuries, embellished and expanded by each generation.
The current generation are broke though. The castle needs many millions spent on it to make it habitable and safe. The ancient Earl and Countess live in a small suite of habitable but cold rooms, looked after by daughter-in-law Jane. Jane and heir Kitto have three children, and Jane does her best, but her patience will be tried to the absolute limit when a letter arrives from her best friend Anastasia, who is dying in India, asking her to take in her daughter Ayesha. Anastasia had also asked Kitto’s sister Blaze, a hedge fund manager in the City, estranged from her ancestral home and family.
The set-up for an hilarious comedy of manners is done. Ayesha will turn up, and her real parentage will cause huge ruffles in everyone’s lives. Kitto having lost the family fortune in a banking scandal, will be doubly embarrassed. It’ll be up to Blaze – who loses her job in a corporate takeover by an awful American – to bring the family back together, to put aside family feuds and make Trelawney Castle viable once again. But even she hasn’t reckoned on the skills of Ayesha, and Blaze hasn’t factored love into the equation either.
This was jolly good fun. We all had a good laugh at all the upper class and nouveau rich stereotypes that Rothschild populates the book with. You do, however, get a sense of the amount of work and money that goes into maintaining a castle, and that they can be a millstone rather than asset. Rothchild’s portrayal of the good and bad sides of the financial world is perhaps too good to be true, but the cut and thrust contrasts well against the rural angst of Cornwall. The satire is less biting than Amanda Craig’s books (see here and here), which are my nearest comparison, but should appeal and raise some chuckles.
Source: Own copy – Bloomsbury paperback, 358 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
As always, our Book Group strives to read a wide range of genres – our 2021 list is to your left. I was slightly surprised this year when I looked back at what we read that there was no Non-Fiction – usually we read at least one. But in terms of genres we’ve covered SF, classics – both ancient and modern, crime, comedy, horror, some gritty contemporary and historical novels.
What novels have your book groups enjoyed reading this year? Do share any recommendations (especially for V, W, X, Y and Z).