The Sealwoman’s Gift: book group questions

Tomorrow our Book Group are meeting to discuss The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. I couldn’t find any book group questions out there so I’ve created some of my own. They are:

  1. Did it alter the way you feel about this book to know it is taken from a true story? Does it matter that most of it is made up? Do you think Sally Magnusson did a good job filling in the gaps/speaking for the women whose history is seldom told?
  2. What was Iceland like in the 17th century? What did the author make alive for you? (All the details are there: dark smoke-filled hovels reeking of fulmar oil used for the lamps, with a sheep’s uterus strung across a window to keep out the wind. A fire fuelled by puffin bones, a housewife stirring a greasy mutton stew, or softening the head of a cod in whey.)
  3. What did you think of the relationship between Asta and Cilleby? Both are changed by the other. She is his property and must never forget it. What might have happened if it had continued?
  4. What did you think of the other women who embrace (perhaps some more enthusiastically than others) their new culture? What would you have done? Could you become Muslim to lose the status of slave?
  5. What was the importance of story telling in the book?
  6. Did Asta want to go home?
  7. Do you think Asta was a good mother? Could you have left your children behind?
  8. How did she feel about her own land when she got back?
  9. Did the book make you think of today’s refugee crisis? What parallels did you find?

Sabbatical Reading

When you have three months off work there is more opportunity for reading without falling asleep after the first page. I wondered whether I should read lots of theology because the Lord knows I have plenty of those gathering dust on my shelves but some wise person on Twitter said ‘Read fiction – you’re on sabbatical!’ so I took him at his word. And let’s not forget there is often tons of theology in fiction anyway. So here is my list of reading for the past twelve weeks. (The ones I can remember anyway.)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. Missionary goes to evangelise aliens. 4 stars.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. 17th century Amsterdam, homosexuality, sugar and miniature things. 3 stars.

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. Time travel, humour, easy to read and loads more in the series. 4 stars.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. Children run away and hide in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Angels, Michelangelo and a fierce girl. 4 stars.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C Wrede. Another children’s book with dragons. Another fierce girl but she let the feminist side down by doing the dragon’s dishes. Good fun though. 3 stars.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. Fact not fiction but really interesting if you love gore. Never look at a fly in the same way again. 4 stars.

The Comforter by Margaret Hart. Written by a friend and interesting journey through counselling and spirituality and sexuality. 4 stars.

Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox. Sex , bishops, feminists in the C of E. Wonderful romp. 5 stars.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  13th century, young woman holed up in church, world keeps interfering. 5 stars.

A Brush with Death by Elizabeth J Duncan. Wales, love and amateur sleuths. More in series. 3 stars.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Marnie Riches. Amsterdam, Cambridge, secrets, fast-paced thriller. 4 stars.

Runaway by Peter May. Glasgow, London in swinging sixties, crime, putting things right. 4 stars.

The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle. Florence, Boboli Gardens, honeymoon killer, art history, stalker and murder. 4 stars.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Required reading for anyone who works in a hospital. Anyone. Not just doctors. 5 stars.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A single parent, fabby children, haunted house, racism in the deep south, a trial. 5 stars.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.  1st in fantasy series, touch of T H White, bastard son, Wit and Skilling mind games, thrilling ending. 5 stars

Missing by Karin Alvtegen. Scandi crime, homeless woman, serial killer, enlists young boy to help so became slightly unbelievable, fast pace. 3 stars.

And a host of art books too many to mention.

So what good books have you read lately?

Our Book Group begged a break while I was away so they could read what they liked but I now have a few good suggestions for when I get back. Always open for more suggestions although this is my unread bookcase so I’ve plenty to keep me going. (Two deep on most shelves!)

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The Wall by William Sutcliffe – Book Group questions

Occasionally we choose a book for our Reading Group for which I can find no questions on the internet. It really helps the conversation if we have some questions to focus our discussion. Here are some questions I’ve come up with for The Wall by William Sutcliffe. Feel free to add any more suggestions in the comments.

THE WALL by William Sutcliffe

Is this book something you would normally read?  Did it win you over?

The book is written for young adults? Did that put you off?

The author says: “What I actually wanted to do is write the story of a kid brought up living a fantasy who happens across reality. For me, that was a lot more interesting.”  What is the fantasy about Joshua’s life?

The author is himself a Jew, so why do you think he wrote a book which was quite critical about Israel?

Did you find the story believable?

Why do you think he chose a young boy to be the main character and not an adult?  Joshua is 13 – the age a Jewish boy comes of age – so do you think he grows up in the novel? In what way?

What did you think about Joshua’s mother? Did you think she was weak?

What about his step-father?

Were there any bits you didn’t like?

It took great courage to go through the tunnel. What gave Joshua the courage to go again?

Did the life of Leila and her family shock you?

Why do you think Joshua took over looking after the olive and lemon groves? What were his motives? Did he make things worse or better for Leila’s family?

The author said “But it was really important to the authenticity of the book that it wasn’t a ‘everyone can be friends across the barbed wire’ kind of story. I guess I have an optimism about people rather than politicians – and a belief that most people want to live ordinary lives in peace.”  Do you agree?

What did you think of the ending? Was it what you expected?

In which Ruth does some holiday reading

Oh my giddy aunt! I have just read the best religiousy book ever. There is a rumble going on in churchy circles about this new woman called Nadia. She has popped up on Twitter @Sarcasticluther and in the Church Times and everyone is saying, “Have you read the book by that tattooed priest?” Ok, maybe not everyone but loads of folk are. And yes, she does have tattoes, lovely Mary Magdalene tattoes all up her arms. Not a little bluebird on your ankle or a butterfly on your coy shoulder kind of tattoes. No, these are big bruiser tattoes which tempt me greatly. The book is called Cranky, Beautiful Faith and is Nadia’s journey with God. She was/is a stand-up comic, an alcoholic, and unlikely pastor in the Lutheran church in Colorado. In fact she founded a mission church called House for All Sinners and Saints and blogs regularly and is becoming the public speaker everyone wants to hear, including me. The book is gloriously honest and outspoken and it made me want to be so much braver. if you like Anne Lamott and can cope with the F-word then read this book. 5 stars.

The next book I read on holiday was a Christmas pressie from Son #2 called Wonder which was absolutely unputdownable. This is one of those books which you’re not sure if it is for children, young adults, adults. I don’t think it matters. I don’t really want to tell you what it is about either or what the themes are but I’m pretty sure we will have it as a Book Group choice soon. It is American and about a young boy but there are other voices too. The young boy has a disability. There are references to Star Wars. It gets excellent reviews from everyone but please read it without knowing too much more. I envy you reading it for the first time. 5 stars.

Our next Book Group book is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The theme of this book is not new – wife goes missing, husband gets accusing of murder. It is quite a long book and took a wee while to get into because neither of the characters are particularly appealing. However I did find myself wondering how it was going to end. The author is good at the psychological thriller and there are so many twists and turns but the ending won’t please everyone. It was definitely a page-turner and kept me guessing. Not sure why I didn’t love it so 3.5 stars.

Sean gunLast night I finished another of my Christmas pressies – Solo by William Boyd. Some time ago I heard Boyd being interviewed on the wireless about being asked to write this latest James Bond book. As you know, the movies are all set in the era in which they are made, but this book is set in the swinging sixties when James is about 45, which would be accurate according to Ian Fleming’s last Bond book. There are some lovely London bits in the 60s but the ‘Bond girls’ are very modern and feisty and independent. So even a feminist can read this quite comfortably! Bond is sent to a fictitious country in West Africa to sort out a civil war, which he does with a twist. Good read. I’d love to read a Bond book written by a woman. #justsaying  3.5 stars (As this book was in hardback I always take the dust cover off to keep it nice when I’m reading it. This book has the most wonderfully designed inside hard cover which I just loved. Go and just have a peak in a shop at the two covers and how they compliment one another.)

In which Ruth had a week off and didn’t do very much

It is tricky using up all your holidays when you didn’t start early enough in the year. Now I’ve got to the stage where people say, “Are you off on holiday AGAIN?”  And you immediately stutter that it was ages since the last one, or how many weeks you didn’t get last year, or how hard-working you’ve been. And because I didn’t take time at the beginning of the year I still have two weeks to take so managed one last week. Was going to go away but that didn’t happen so it was a lovely week chez moi.

Think I may have given myself a thrombosis sitting so long reading books in the first three days. I managed the Book Group one: The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman which was jolly good and didn’t take long at all. Then I read The Black Rose of Florence because it was set in Florence really. Found it a little disappointing for a thriller and not as much about Florence other than a few place names thrown in here and there. Not a mention of the Boboli Gardens either. How can you have a whodunnit without the Boboli Gardens? And finally I started Wool but am only half way through, it being small print and lots and lots of pages. It is a sort of grown up version of the Hunger Games, perhaps not so exciting but intriguing all the same.

I also did a bit of knitting for the Christmas Fair coming up. Still on the infinity evening scarves. There will have to come a point when I stop knitting them, I know. There are only so many events one goes to that require an infinity scarf after all. But once I find something I like doing I have been known to rather overdo it, in a sort of addictive way. It was the same with smoking, you may remember. (Almost a year, btw.)

Rita kitten is poorly again so there were some vet visits too. Her anaemia is back again so it looks like this will be her future. 4-5 months of okay health and then quickly descending into weakness, heart-racing, lying around. She has had all the jags this time but they’ve not made much of an impression. Last time this led to blood transfusions but I don’t think this is possible this time. As the big Maine Coon cat who lived locally and was a donor match for Rita kitten has moved away there is no other source of blood. Told today the blood bank has none either but there may be a Vet in Glasgow who has some – at about £1000. Eeek. Don’t really know what to do. Except worry.

Went to church on the Sunday of my hol to Linlithgow – my old stomping ground. It was lovely to catch up with old friends and be shocked and amazed at the size of the young people. J & R were just wee souls and now J towers over me and R is so articulate – he just ran round and round when I was there last. These people do feel like part of your family still but sort of distant relations. Made me slightly envious of all the young children they had, mind you. They did a fabulous Harvest presentation.

My baby was 35 too last week. 35! He, his girlfriend and I all went out for lunch. What did he want most on his Wish List for birthday presents? Star Wars Lego. Is this normal?  Last time I played with Lego it was at the Tisec flat when we were training to be priests. Not sure whose box of Lego it was (perhaps Gareth S?) but we were known to build our own sanctuaries when the studying got too much. Of course now those memories of sumptuous sanctuaries are long gone and we realise that we live with what we’re given. Cracked and crunchy tiles and all. Lego Church Top

And that was my holiday. I did sneak in a few wedding orders of service by the weekend because it was all looking rather hectic when I got back. Naughty, I know. But if you do take on looking after two churches during their interregnum then something has to go. And now a week later and the wedding is done and my day off today was spent attending the funeral of a good friend, and you realise that it is really that thing about being a priest 24/7. Ontologically and all that jazz. You do what you do because you want to, not because you have to.


Holiday reading

Oh I had such high hopes for my holiday reading. My Kindle was bulging with unread books and I was so looking forward to curling up with my cashmere wrap and losing myself in the mystery.  Well, dear reader, I’m afraid it just didn’t happen. The pipers, of whom we shall speak no more, were responsible for seriously curtailing my reading on Skye. But I just didn’t really find the couldn’t-put-down book until the day before I was back in work.

The Postmistress was the first book I read. Set during WW2 in London and Cape Cod, it tells the story of three women: Frankie the young American reporter in London; Emma the doctor’s wife in Cape Cod; and Iris the Cape Cod postmistress. What if a letter were never sent? What are the repercussions on such an act? I like a good war story but this wasn’t it. The characters didn’t really interact until the very end and it could have been much more exciting. 2 stars.

The Selkie Spell was the second book and I have to confess it did remind me of a Mills & Boon with a fairy story twist. However, Mills and Boon would have done a better job of the will they, won’t they relationship between Tara and Dominic. It kept me reading but I was a little disappointed by some of it. (The Kindle version also has lots of mistakes in it.)  The theme was good: mystery, love, thriller and a bit of fantasy thrown in. Written by an American about Ireland so a few hiccups there but it gets lots of 5 stars on Amazon so perhaps I’m being a bit hard. 3 stars.

Citadel by Kate Mosse was my third book and I actually haven’t finished it yet. I loved Labyrinth (the first book) and was looking forward to this third one by Mosse, however I was a little disappointed. I loved the notion of women working for the Resistance in France and this could have been much more exciting. There are the usual flashbacks to ancient times and it all became a little bit contrived for me. It just wasn’t a page-turner but I see the reviews say the 2nd half is much better so I will perhaps go back to it.

Shadow of Night was by far the best book I’ve read recently (if you’re in to vampires, witchcraft, and time travel) which was the second in a new trilogy by Deborah Harkness. I can’t remember who suggested the first one to me (A Discovery of Witches) but it might have been Sally who shares my taste in books. On first glance I didn’t think it was going to be my kind of thing but I was wrong. There is a bit of Diana Gabaldon’s Crossstitch in this one with the time travel to Tudor times. And there is a bit of JK Rowling with the witches and vampires. I really didn’t think I’d get in to the vampire genre but I loved these books. Ended up reading this until 2am to finish it. 4 stars

Our book group met this week to discuss the first in the Shetland Quartet: Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Loved it and will probably read the others soon.

Our next book is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Lots of good reviews so I hope its a goody. (They are a difficult bunch to please, this book group!)

Books what I have read

Another long book group yesterday discussing Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. Actually I had read it about a year ago, I think, but someone else suggested it and I remembered that I had found it hard to put down.  When I first posted on Twitter that we were going to be reading this the author immediately got in touch and offered to attend our book group via Skype or to answer any questions. Wow! How impressive is that? Then I thought of our little book group… of the one who usually dozes off; of the one who comes to enjoy a cuppa and hasn’t always read the book; of the four of us ladies of a certain age who constantly say, “I don’t remember that bit…” or “Who was she again?” And everyone’s a critic! I’m sure the author would love to hear our opinions.

Anyway, back to the book. It is quite harrowing and one of our members just found it so violent she almost couldn’t read it. It features domestic abuse, with a psychological thriller twist. Almost unbelievable in parts but then you realise that this could be someone’s reality and that is so horrible. The main character also suffers from OCD and what starts out as something rather annoying (‘Oh for heaven’s sake, pull yourself together’ kind of thing) develops into sympathy as you understand why she is the way she is. It really is a page turner and has you wondering who the goodies and baddies are. 5 stars.

I also read The Rapture by Liz Jensen which was not quite so good. Set in the near future, psychologist Gabrielle tries to rebuild her life after a horrific accident which has left her in a wheelchair. She goes to work in a hospital and meets Bethany, a violent, manipulative youngster who can predict the future. Earthquakes, disasters, wars and destruction follow amid a love story and psychological thriller. Bethany’s father is an evangelical preacher of the hellfire and damnation variety, and is probably responsible for many of her problems. I quite liked that the hero was disabled but the rest of it was just a little bit too unbelievable and it was all finished off rather too quickly. 3 stars.

Can I also recommend Awesome Books if you are avoiding Amazon these days? Free delivery, new and secondhand books at great prices (often cheaper than Amazon) and pretty fast too.

Murder, mayhem and macho

I forgot to report on my last two fiction books read before Lent so here we have a wee word about them both.

The first was our Book Group choice: The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Now you might think this a strange choice for a Book Group and indeed you could be right. However one of our group has found herself unable to finish the last few books because they have been… well, a bit boring to be honest. A bit worthy, if you know what I mean. Definitely not enough excitement in them for her. So our oldest member (late 80s) suggested a Lee Child book. It would appear that her granddaughter has recommended them to granny and she has been wolfing them down. So we agreed to start with the first one of many, many in the series. Having read it I can see why the critics were so surprised that Jack Reacher was played by Tom Cruise in the latest film. Tom Cruise being known for his shortness of stature and Jack Reacher being known for his 6foot 5inchesness, or thereabouts. It was okay. It was short sentences and the story kept going at a good pace. I just got a little fed up with the amount of people he killed with no recriminations. I know they were baddies but it did seem just a tad unlikely that a stranger could wander into town, get to potter about the police station undisturbed, and then wipe out the local baddie population with much gouging of eyes and swift neck cracking. 2 stars.

The second book I read was The Priest by Gerard O’Donovan. This was a good old murder mystery set in Dublin, and a debut novel. I think I picked it up in a charity shop and needless to say the title was what grabbed me. Who could resist the strapline: “Light your candles. Say your prayers. Confess your sins. The Priest is coming.” Quite. It was another page-turner with a cop and rookie journalist fighting the establishment to catch the killer who likes to brand his victims with a cross. It was pretty exciting and not a bad plot but there was just one thing which niggled me and that was the whole ‘Priest’ thing. Now it may be that I fell asleep and didn’t take in why this killer was going around branding everyone with crosses but I did feel that this could have been made more of the story. In fact, I can’t even remember now why he was doing it and I only finished it 4 days ago. I mean, he wasn’t actually a priest if memory serves me well. 3 stars.

And now it is Lent and fiction has been set aside for Theology. Watch this space.

More books what I have read

Gosh, it has been ages since I have blogged. That will be because of two funerals and a frantic race to get all things organised for being away. Yes, I am on holiday this week and then off to Windsor Castle next week for a course. However, although I’ve been really busy I have managed to read a few books.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is our next book group choice. I chose it by looking at some American Book Club website and finding their book of the month. Wish I hadn’t now. ‘Full of Gothic twists, it’s an irresistible tale of skewed seduction’ said the Daily Mail. Why would I care what the Daily Mail says anyway but they got the skewed seduction right. The story could have been okay had it not been for the author’s penchant for putting all the main character’s thoughts on sex in every page. Well, not quite every page but it did get a bit tiresome. Set in 1907 Ralph puts an advert in a newspaper for a wife. Catherine arrives, beautiful of course, and then the ‘Gothic twists’ begin. There were some surprises and it wasn’t a bad wee story and page-turner but I could have managed without the endless pondering about sex.
It must be my age. 3 stars

Out of the Deep I cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the 3rd in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Can Alstyne mysteries, Clare being an Episcopal priest and Russ being the chief of police. I read the first two some years ago and remembered them as being quite good. I’m not sure this one was quite so good but that might have been because the story goes back and forwards in time which is something I don’t really enjoy in a novel. And how she managed to get all the sleuthing done in the middle of Lent is beyond me, however a bit of poetic license must be allowed I guess. As always, with an ecclesiastical whodunnit, I could have done with a bit more ‘churchy’ stuff. Spencer-Fleming does do ‘small town politics’ well. 4 stars.

Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate tells the tale of the Trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612. This is a book about women, some powerful and some abused. It is really a novella and just took me a few hours to read. John McLuckie does a much better review than I could. I loved the book. Winterson takes some real history and imbues it with her own fantastical writing. 5 stars.

I’m going to try my iPad for reading while I’m away instead of my Kindle. Will let you know how I get on. The clever thing is that they sync so that when I come home to my Kindle it should remember what page I was on with the iPad. Clever, eh?

Books and stuff

When you’re in a Book Group you’re always on the lookout for a good book to share. As a result there are two TV programmes that I watch – The Book Programme with Mariella Frostrup and The TV Book Club which used to be Richard & Judy’s domain, I think, but is now hosted by Jo Brand (comedienne).

This year’s recommended summer read was Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson. I’ve just finished it and found that it contained more than a few echoes to one of my favourite books of old – Skallagrigg by William Horwood. However, I don’t think it was as good but then it has been many years since I read it. It tells the story of Grace who is put into Briar Mental Institute at the age of 11 and meets Daniel, an epileptic who has no arms. The book is mostly their love story which gives a rare insight into the minds of those who are different from ‘us’. The language is lovely and almost poetic in parts and helps explain what it must be like to be unable to communicate fully. (Again there were echoes of another good read – Room by Emma Donoghue.) The ending is a mixture of sadness and hope. And I’m still not sure if I really liked it, or not. Have you read it? Would love to know what you think.

I’ve also finally finished my Christmas book The Fry Chronicles, an Autobiography. I’m a big fan of Stephen Fry and laughed out loud at his first autobiography Moab is my Washpot but I didn’t think this was nearly as funny. There are lots of nice photos and Stephen and Emma Thomson and Hugh Lawrie, among others. The book mainly focuses on his university years and the beginning of his career with Hugh. It was interesting but just not as amusing as I expected.