Archive for February, 2013

Feeling full or would you like seconds? The Dinner by Herman Koch

The DinnerA darkly suspenseful, highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the hardest decision of their lives – all over the course of one meal.

It’s a summer’s evening in Amsterdam, and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant for dinner. Between mouthfuls of food and over the polite scrapings of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of polite discourse – the banality of work, the triviality of the holidays. But behind the empty words, terrible things need to be said, and with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened.

Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act; an act that has triggered a police investigation and shattered the comfortable, insulated worlds of their families. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children. As civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple show just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator, The Dinner promises to be the topic of countless dinner party debates. Skewering everything from parenting values to pretentious menus to political convictions, this novel reveals the dark side of genteel society and asks what each of us would do in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

When I began to read this book I did find it a bit of a struggle. The story unravels itself whilst our characters are out for dinner and I fully expected the book to progress from there. Surely the entire book wouldn’t be written whilst sat at the dinner table? Would you believe it – it was! Hhmm, I was beginning to wonder whether I’d be able to manage the starters, let alone the main course and dessert, but I stuck with it and found myself relatively satisfied by the end of it.

Although we have a few characters the main protagonist seems to ramble on about the most insignificant details of day to day life, which started to get on my nerves. I was very close to putting the book down and calling it a day until a particular incident occurred that completely turns the book on its head and throws up many moral and parental issues. I was hooked – and I wanted to know what the outcome would be. Having said that, I do still find that the beginning was a real drag, yet my group seemed to have completely opposite opinions! Most of the group found the beginning to be the most interesting and only began to struggle towards the end, but on a whole, the majority really quite enjoyed it.

One of the things I love about book group is how my opinions can change once I listen to other viewpoints and opinions. After a few minutes of discussion I actually realised that there were quite a few areas of comedy peppered throughout the book which almost became lost in the uninteresting parts, but after a good discussion I began to think that this was a more interesting and humorous read than I’d first thought. It’s by no means badly written, but there are a few areas that leave you with more questions than answers, and certainly get you questioning your own moral judgement. As for our main protagonist we see his character and personality leaves a lot to be desired and quite frankly, he’s a bit of a weirdo. His wife, brother and sister-in-law leave a lot to be desired too, and some of the choices they make in the book leave you with a little less faith in the human race.

The characters do grow throughout the book, but the more you get to know them the more you tend to dislike them. As a group we found that some of the characters began to seem a bit on the unbelievable side, and some of the choices they made seemed a little callous and hard to believe that if found in that situation, this is what you would have done. The politician in the book (by all rights) should be the one who makes the selfish decisions – the decisions that further his career with minimal effort – but instead we find that he is the only one who can actually address the situation with clarity and a grim determination to do the right thing. As a group we discussed the implications of his actions and the effect this would have on his family and career. Would we have made the same decisions? Could we make those same sacrifices? Does human life mean so little to some people? Deep stuff, with some interesting answers!

Overall, this book was excellent as a book group choice as we managed to squeeze out some great points of discussion, and would definitely be a book to try if you’re looking for something completely different to the norm. Give it a whirl and see what you think for yourself. The worst that will happen is a slight twinge of indigestion, but hopefully you’ll manage to get to dessert without so much as a hiccup.

Lifeboat or deathboat? A cunningly crafted novel by Charlotte Rogan

the-lifeboatI was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for six. It is 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war. When a magnificent ocean liner suffers a mysterious explosion en route to New York City, Henry Winter manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for his new wife Grace. But the survivors quickly realize the boat is over capacity and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die. Over the course of three perilous weeks, the passengers on the lifeboat plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while sitting inches apart. Their deepest beliefs are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.

The idea of this book struck me immediately as I have a very strong curiosity and interest in the Titanic and thought that this would be similar, but different. In someways this was much more terrifying and quite frankly I found it very disturbing and uncomfortable in parts. Whilst sat in the comfort of a lifeboat it must have been pretty frightening to see fellow passengers and friends drowning and suffering before your very eyes. I can’t begin to imagine how distressing a scene that would have been, but surely you would feel a sense of joy and gratitude that you have survived and are one of the fortunate ones sat right there in the lifeboat awaiting rescue? There is a clue in the name – lifeboat – you would presume that it would be a safe place, a place where your life would be OK, but what happens when you begin to doubt the minds of those you should trust? What happens when the power of authority shifts? These are some of the questions that will (to a certain extent) be answered by the final pages.

As a group we found this to be a very interesting read that brought your attention to the aftermath of a shipwreck rather than the shipwreck itself. The story is cleverly crafted and not only is it a tale of survival and hope, but a tale of deceit, corruption and malice – quite a chilling read! The book raised quite a few questions about our own moral duties and what we would have done had we found ourselves in that position. A scary thought, but an interesting discussion none the less.

The pace was just about right and Rogan delivers a very interesting and thought provoking read that will certainly keep you reading to the very end. In our discussion we did agree that Grace (our protagonist) was much more stout and clever than first impressions would have you believe, but you have to follow her on her journey to make your own mind about her soundness of mind and just where she was nestled when it came to the control of the boat and its occupants. Definitely a read for anyone looking for something a bit different with a twist of phycological thriller in there too!

As I was intrigued by the possibility of The Lifeboat being based on a true story, I contacted Charlotte to ask whether any of this was factual and where her inspiration for the story came from. Please see her reply below.

Last spring marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. As most people know, the tragedy of the Titanic was that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone—in order to cut costs, The White Star line had reduced the number of boats so that there were seats for only about half of the 2200 people on board. In addition, many of the boats were launched before they were full, contributing to the loss of life.

But if you made it into one of the Titanic’s lifeboats, you were rescued approx. 4-6 hours later. The characters in my debut novel, which is called The Lifeboat, were not so lucky. This is the story of Grace Winter, a 22-year old woman who survives 3 weeks in an overcrowded lifeboat only to be put on trial for her life. In the first chapter, Grace’s lawyers suggest that she write her story down as part of her defense, and the result is a first-person day-by-day account. As the days pass and the weather deteriorates, it becomes increasingly apparent that for any to live, some must die.
One of the questions the book asks is WHAT WOULD YOU DO? In the past few weeks, I have been asked by readers and journalists if I would kill another person in order to survive. I usually respond that I would probably not be able to hurt anyone who had not first hurt me—-and then the person asks, BUT WHAT IF YOUR CHILDREN WERE WITH YOU IN THE BOAT?
I think the real answer is that it’s hard for any of us to know what we would do.
Michael Sandel, who teaches a popular class at Harvard called “Justice,” poses thought experiments to his students in order to tease out the circumstances under which it might be proper to kill a single person in order to save many. I’ll try it on you:
Imagine you are the driver of a runaway trolley that is headed toward a crowd of people. The brakes don’t work, but the steering mechanism does. Would you steer the trolley onto a side-track with a single person on it, thereby killing one person but saving the crowd? Most people say that they would.
Now imagine that you can accomplish the same result—saving many by killing one—by pushing a very fat man onto the track to stop the trolley. Most people say that they would not do this.
When the parameters of the scenario were changed in this way, Sandel’s class also went from believing that this sort of killing was not only permissible but morally required, to thinking it was abhorrent. And the parameter that seemed to have the most importance in changing their minds was the extent to which they would get their own hands dirty. I think we are all secretly relieved when someone else does the dirty work for us.
This is the kind of question I find endlessly fascinating, and it was the idea of a moral dilemma, rather than anything to do with the Titanic, that inspired me to write the book.
I found the inspiration for The Lifeboat in my husband’s old criminal law text, which I picked up one day and started to read. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after they were rescued.
The discussion of one of the cases talked about the Plank of Carneades. Carneades was a Roman skeptic who caused a stir with his lectures on the uncertainty of justice. He proposed a thought experiment where two drowning sailors come upon a plank that can only support one. Sailor A arrives at the plank first, but B pushes him off and is later saved. Is B guilty of murder? I use this thought experiment in a scene at Grace’s trial.
For many years, shipwrecked sailors thought they were protected by something called the Custom of the Sea. This was an unwritten code of conduct meant to govern the actions of people who found themselves far beyond the reach of any civil authority. For instance, it held that the captain should be the last one to leave a sinking ship, that women and children should be saved first, and that the ship’s crew had a special duty to the passengers. It also held that the concept of necessity made it acceptable to kill other people in order to survive as long as the victims were chosen fairly by drawing lots.
By the late 1800’s, however, the courts were noticing that the victims supposedly chosen in this fashion always seemed to be the natural victims—the weakest ones—and the concept of necessity as a defense to murder was finally outlawed in a famous English case called Regina v. Dudley and Stephens. This was one of the cases that caught my eye in the legal text, and I later learned that it was also an inspiration for Joseph Conrad in the writing of Lord Jim.
Well, the courts might have solved the legal question of necessity to their own satisfaction, but for people facing extreme situations and scarce resources, the existential question remains: Is the only honorable course of action to quietly die?
This also brings up the question of how an individual might have come to be in such a situation in the first place. When I was pondering Carneades’s thought experiment, I started to wonder—What if the two swimmers got unequal starts toward the plank? Is the disadvantaged swimmer always doomed either to die or to face legal charges? And is the only moral response for him or her to passively accept this fate? In a world of growing population and shrinking resources, this question has interesting implications for all of us today. 


The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling

JK Rowling's The Casual VacancyWhen Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. 
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. 
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. 
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 
A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.

As a huge fan of Harry Potter I was intrigued to learn of Rowling’s new adult book and although I knew it would be a million miles away from wizardry I still felt that I’d like to have a nosey and see what master piece she had written now. A few members of the group had also mentioned that they would like to have a read so I thought it would be a good option to give it a try for January’s meeting.

The idea of the book sounded interesting enough but after a sneaky peek at some of the reviews I have to admit that I was a little dubious as to whether this would be yet another great achievement for this prolific writer, or whether it would be a pretty average novel full of self indulgence and cliches. I have to say – that I disliked it with a passion . . . but I was the only one who did! With over forty characters and many individual stories branching off in all directions I found myself swamped with too many unimportant and uninteresting characters that I thought I was going to die of boredom before reaching the end. Credit to Rowling for creating so many different stories and characters and then weaving a web that then joined at the end (because I can’t imagine that being an easy task), but it just wasn’t for me.

On a better note our group absolutely loved this book and seemed to draw out thoughts and feelings that I just couldn’t reach. We had various interesting discussions around welfare, society and social care (quite deep for us!) and found that Rowling seems to be writing to make a point, and seemed to achieve her point. The ending was indeed something that I didn’t see coming and it was, in fact, a very upsetting ending which did seem to affect some of our group. Most likely because it was so true in the current society that we live in, and this is what makes it so scary – the simple reality of what Rowling was saying. Some members did seem to find that important parts of the story (or parts which were quite dramatic and needed a bit more depth) were skimmed over in a very blase fashion. Whether or not this was intentional, or a slight laziness on the authors part, I’m not too sure. The beginning was quite painful and did take a good while to get going, but once you managed to get your head around the characters, and their parts they had to play, you were carried on their journeys whether you wanted to go or not.

On a whole, as a book group choice, it was an excellent book to discuss as there was so much to it that it would be impossible not to bring at least three or four hot topics to the table for discussion. I did think to myself that if we struggled for conversation that I could always bring up the discussion of whether children’s writers belong in the adult market, but there was no need for me to drag this discussion up as the book was rich with questions and curiosities – many of which were still unanswered by the final chapter.

So, although it wasn’t for me I would still recommend people to give it a try, especially when my group enjoyed it so.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes


The story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, Julian Barnes’s new novel is laced with his trademark precision, dexterity and insight. It is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?

Originally, this was a book group recommendation from another group and I chose this book on that basis. To be honest I wasn’t too keen at first glance but, as always, book group is for trying out books that we normally wouldn’t read – so I got stuck in.

This was one of the shortest books I have read in a while, yet it was brimming with wit, humour and depth. It is a true master of the English language who can fit so much into so few pages and Julian Barnes does this perfectly. The story is quite snappy and does tend to skip large chunks of our protagonists life, but it is easy enough to follow (even if I did have to get the dictionary out every now and then!) and it had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. It was great to find that the rest of the group also found the book to be both a pleasurable and entertaining read.

Admittedly, it did seem to have a bit of a slow start, but once you were familiar with the pace and dynamics of the story you found it very hard to put down and could see why it ended up winning the Man Booker Prize. The story itself seems simple enough, yet the ending is complex and certainly a bit of a shocker that also leaves you with a few questions of your own. Although Barnes writes with depth and originality it was the humour that did it for me – just the simplicity of some of the comments made by Tony (our protagonist) rang very true and made it easier for the reader to understand and relate to his feelings and situations.

The whole group seemed to find this a book worth reading and I whole heartedly recommend anyone wanting to read something that bit different to give this a try. It was my first attempt at reading something by Julian Barnes and I shall certainly be looking at reading more of his work.

About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit


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