05 December 2013

We found 'The Lost Duchess'

Jenny Barden with Alices' famous mulled wine
We had a real treat at last nights reading group meeting, a visits from the author of The Lost Duchess Jenny Barden.  Before I go into what we talked about and our review of the book I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jenny once again for her company, giving us the background to the book, discussing the writing process and giving us insights into possible future books.  Often we we talk about the book from our, the groups, point of view and it was fantastic to hear from a writer for a change and their love for the characters and landscapes that they have created. 

Our first question had to be, why then? Why that time period? Why there? (OK technically that's three but you get my drift*)

The sixteenth century is such a wonderfully rich and fascinating period in English history. It was our Golden Age, the Age of Discovery, an era that saw a flowering in the arts and visionary thinking. As for the voyages, these are key episodes in England’s growth as a nation. The backdrop to Mistress of the Sea was Drake’s first successful raid against the Spanish in Panama which set him on the path to fame and fortune. Drake’s subsequent exploits in asserting English dominance at sea were to culminate in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and prepare the way for the foundation of the British Navy. As a novelist, I find there’s an irresistible allure to writing about these ventures that involved journeys into the unknown and risking all to go further and do more than had ever been attempted before. 

When I met my editor to discuss the next book I already had several outlines for a second novel which had been commissioned simply as ‘historical novel 2′. She asked me what, in my heart, did I really want to write about, and I answered: ‘Traces on a Timeless Shore’ which was the working title I’d given to a novel I’d planned to write about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Initially I’d envisaged that Ellyn and Will from Mistress of the Sea would take the lead in this book, but my editor was keen that I should centre the tale on different characters to allow scope for the development of another new love story (rather than one revived within an existing marriage). She was particularly drawn to Kit, Will’s brother, the handsome mariner with a troubled past: ex-hostage, Spanish prisoner, and leader of an outlaw band of escaped slaves, the Cimaroons; a man with a son by his Cimaroon lover, and a burning desire to avenge her murder at the hands of the Spaniards. It was a joy to develop Kit as a protagonist, and introduce Emme Fifield, fictional lady-in-waiting (‘Maid of Honour’) to Queen Elizabeth, who is violated by the Earl of Hertford, son of the usurped Duke of Somerset. Through Emme, I was able to work affairs at court into the story, as well as the politics that supported Sir Walter Raleigh’s New World venture and some of the problems that plagued it. I also had material for a soaring high tension romance, and an action-packed thriller. The background was a wonderful subject, one with deep resonance on many levels: a terrific tale of vision, endurance and bravery, steeped in tantalising historical mystery of the kind that arouses perennial fascination.

[adapted from my own notes and notes on this blog]

But on to our review...

The following is from Jenny Barden's website here:

Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, Emme Fifield’s only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America.
Emme joins Kit Doonan’s rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia, but such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least.
As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep…

Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement at Roanoke was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; The Lost Duchess explores what might have happened to the ill-starred ‘Lost Colony’

The group felt like they knew the characters well and could each picture them clearly in our minds highlighting how well drawn each of the characters were.  The book gave a real flavour for what we can imagine that time, the Elizabethan period, could be like.  I had to tell Jenny how I had to put the book down at one point where she tells how a journey by ship over rough sees is made and I could feel myself rising and pitching with the ship and could get a real idea of how that must feel.  It came to light in our discussion that Jenny had been on the reconstruction of the Golden Hind in London as well as sailing so could give a real description of her own experience with a little writers magic.

Sticking with the characters the group found them believable and cared about the journey of each of them throughout the book, and we had a good discussion of one of the baddies,Ferdinando, and Jenny explained why he could be so bad but the possible reason behind it.  I won't type that here and leave it to your imagination dear reader :)

What becomes clear is that this is a thoroughly well researched book that blends fact, fiction and writers magic to create a tale of wondrous excitement, adventure and emotion.  Jennys dedication to getting as much historical information accurate and blending of her experiences leaves you with an enjoyable story that as a reader paints a glorious picture enabling you step back in time.  You feel part of the action and carried on the journey of the main characters in the book.

Speaking of action the book begins with a particularly shocking scene which personally I found helped me to move away from the airy fairy fluff of the Queens court and straight into the action of the nitty gritty of that period.

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable book we would happily recommend to readers of historical fiction but also those with a sense of adventure!

Builth Wells Reading Group with author Jenny Barden 2013
So that's us for another year, 2013 has been a rollercoaster of great, good, bad and downright awful reads but we were fortunate to leave the year on a high.  We will be back Wednesday 5th February, Builth Wells Library, 7pm to review...well something we'll decide in January (come on we've got to go help Santa).

We hope you have a very merry Christmas and look forward to a wonderful new year!

*shipping puns intended

08 November 2013

The Casual Vacancy

At our last meeting, Wednesday 6th November, we discussed The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. This is Rowlings first novel for adults after some series about some boy wizard or something (sarcasm) and seemed to go down quite well with the group.

Firstly a synopsis of the book... When 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 facade 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?

Its a big novel about a small town.

A few of us, myself included, hadn't quite managed to the end of the book in time finding it to be quite a difficult read.  The language is quite raw and some of the subjects covered quite controversial.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of but they are very well drawn and the short chapters make this easy to do.  We also felt it had a lot of similarities to Builth, or any small down, so often you were assigning people you already knew to the characters in the story.

There are two different covers available for the book this one...

Which we felt highlighted the uncomfortable nature of the story with its bright red and yellow cover, and this one...

Which although was a prettier cover we agreed it doesn't really convey the content very well.

Those that did finish the book said they really enjoyed it and some couldn't put it down.  It was described as a book that makes you think  after  you have finished it...so I better get reading!

Our read for this month and to be discussed at our December meeting is The Lost Duchess by Jenny Barden.  We're very lucky that Jenny is coming along to our meeting in December to discuss the book with us and the publisher has given us several copies for the group to help with our review.

The December meeting is a social one, with food and drink and more jovality than usual so if you're new and would like to come along this is a great one to attend.  So we will see you Wednesday 4th December at 7pm Builth Wells Library, High St, Builth.

04 October 2013

December meeting plans with The Lost Duchess

At our December meeting, Wednesday 4th December,  we are having a visit from author of 'The mistress of the sea' and 'The lost duchess' Jenny Barden where we will be discussing her novel 'The lost duchess.'

Usually our December meeting is a very social event where we all bring some grub along, Alice brings her infamous mulled wine, and we enjoy the last session of the year.  

So if you are planning to come along to that meeting, and I highly recommend it for the mulled wine alone, could you have a think about what you could bring along to compile a list at our November 6th meeting or email Jan as usual. 

Unfortunately the cheese and biscuits idea has already been snaffled, I'll need to go to my fallback plan of Pringles!

03 October 2013

A room swept...meh

At last nights meeting we reviewed 'A Room Swept White' by Sophie Hannah. As you can tell by the title of this post it didn't receive a standing ovation neither was it thrown from the top landing of the library, it was ok.

The story...
"TV producer Fliss Benson receives an anonymous card at work. The card has sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four – numbers that mean nothing to her.

On the same day, Fliss finds out she’s going to be working on a documentary about miscarriages of justice involving cot death mothers wrongly accused of murder. The documentary will focus on three women: Helen Yardley, Sarah Jaggard and Rachel Hines. All three women are now free, and the doctor who did her best to send them to prison for life, child protection zealot Dr Judith Duffy, is under investigation for misconduct.

For reasons she has shared with nobody, this is the last project Fliss wants to be working on. And then Helen Yardley is found dead at her home, and in her pocket is a card with sixteen numbers on it, arranged in four rows of four…"

So what were the issues? Well the group felt it was quite predictable in places as well as being a little unrealistic especially towards the end of the story. Several group members didn't enjoy reading one of the characters from a first person viewpoint but our main issue was trying to keep track of the character names. Specifically the names of the police officers which we all found confusing and muddling.

The story itself however was well researched and enjoyable enough but we were hard pushed to call it a psychological thriller. Jan has read several of the authors titles and did say this wasn't one of her best and the website did mention this was fifth to feature some of the characters so possibly getting to know the characters from the start would help.

You can find out more about the author from her website here.

So on to our next read which will hopefully inspire us more, 'A Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling. As ever there are several copies in the library, have a look by searching here.

Our next meeting will be on Wednesday 6th November at 7pm in Builth Wells Library, High St, Builth Wells or as ever you can post comment here or Twitter using #BuilthBooks

05 September 2013

The Gravity of Birds

After receiving copies from the Reading Agency last night the group reviewed 'The Gravity of Birds' by Tracy Guzeman. I've posted our review here but you can also read it on the Reading Agency website here

How do you find someone who wants to be lost?
Sisters Alice and Natalie were once close, but adolescence has wrenched them apart. Alice is a dreamer who loves books and birds; Natalie is headstrong, manipulative – and beautiful.

On their lakeside family holiday, Alice falls under the thrall of a struggling young painter, Thomas Bayber. Natalie, however, seems strangely unmoved, tolerating sittings for a family portrait with surprising indifference. But by the end of the summer, three lives are shattered. Decades later, Thomas, now a world-renowned artist, reveals the existence of a portrait of himself with Alice and Natalie from that fateful summer. The sisters themselves have disappeared without a

trace. And Thomas is torn between taking the secrets of the girls to the grave, or using the painting to resurrect the past before it closes up on them all for good…


“I’m sorry for her, Phinneaus. I’m sorry she never had what she wanted. Maybe if she had, she’d have been a different person then, too.” She felt an ugliness, not physical for once, but a black hole swallowing her from the inside. “Something happened at the lake that summer and I blamed Natalie for it, at least in part. She was always the one people paid attention to, the one everybody wanted. When I found out what she’d done, it was easy to hate her. But it doesn’t carry the same weight, does it, thinking you hate someone when you’re a child? You can’t understand until you’re older what people are capable of.”


Tracy Guzeman lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her fiction has been published in Gulf Coast, Vestal Review and Glimmer Train Stories, and performed as part of the New Short Fiction Series Emerging Voices Group Show. The Gravity of Birds is her first novel.


First thoughts were on the cover, the group weren't overly keen on the cover (shown above) and preferred the look of the cover from the authors website (shown on the right) which shows just a bird cage. 

The book itself divided the group, some found it too wordy and difficult to get into and others were polar opposite and enjoyed the descriptions given by the author and were intrigued by the stories not just of the sisters but all the characters. In terms of writing style several members of the group drew comparisons with the Bronte sisters! The authors description throughout leaves little to the readers imagination which can work for and against the story in some parts. 

In general the group enjoyed the story and enjoyed the references to art and birds throughout. Nobody in the group seen the twist at the end coming! We were all very surprised at this being a first novel and several members of the group took a copy away to give to friends and in one case re-read as they enjoyed it so much so we would recommend it. Those that enjoyed the story feel it would be a good winter read to get cosy, comfortable and to be enjoyed over a few nights.

Our next read is Sophie Hannah "A Room Swept White" to be discussed at our meeting on Wednesday 2nd October, Builth Wells library, High St, Builth Wells at 7pm. Their are plenty of copies of this title in the library so you know what to do, go see Sue!

08 August 2013

This is a story

Well our latest title was the subject of a very fiery debate at the group last night, which means we obviously picked an interesting title.  "The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ" by Phillip Pullman was the subject of our discussion last night.

The synopsis of the book from Amazon UK "This is a story. In this ingenious and spell-binding retelling of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman revisits the most influential story ever told. Charged with mystery, compassion and enormous power, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. For, above all, this book is about how stories become stories."

You can find out more about the author from his website however a short introduction "I was born in Norwich in 1946, and educated in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia, before my family settled in North Wales. I received my secondary education at the excellent Ysgol Ardudwy, Harlech, and then went to Exeter College, Oxford, to read English, though I never learned to read it very well...My views on education are eccentric and unimportant, however. My only real claim to anyone's attention lies in my writing. I've published nearly twenty books, mostly of the sort that are read by children, though I'm happy to say that the natural audience for my work seems to be a mixed one - mixed in age, that is, though the more mixed in every other way as well, the better."

The debate last night wasn't exactly on the topic of religion but how you approach the book, the story, and with what pre-conceived ideas.  The back cover tells us to approach it with no previous knowledge of the gospels however without that the story itself is lost with no plot, no description and you care little for the characters.  However those that did have an understanding of the gospels took a great deal away from it and said it made them think about the whole aspect of Christianity.  It seemed to be to the group a softly softly approach from the author to make us think about organised religion, specifically Christianity, and our beliefs and where they come from.  So for some in the group it worked well and for others it fell apart but definitely made for an interesting debate.  Their was a great debate as to who was the "angle" that came to Christ, was it indeed an angel, a Roman spy, the devil...what are your thoughts?

Our next read is from a competition won through The Reading Agency: Reading Groups for Everyone called 'The Gravity of Birds' by Tracy Guzeman 

I have to say I'm already half way through and although I don't feel its a page turner I'm enjoying it like I enjoy a box of chocolates and currently scoffing the toffee one :)

This will be discussed at our next meeting Wednesday 4th September at 7pm at Builth Wells Library, High St, Builth Wells.

See you then!

08 July 2013

Life's a beach

Better late than never we got around to discussing the Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke at our last meeting.  I say that as we won a set of copies through a competition on The Reading Agency book group site and were due to post reviews way back at the beginning of June.

For those who haven't read it here's an introduction and excerpt from the book from The Reading Agency, Reading Groups for Everyone site;  There are some currents in the relationship between sisters that run so dark and so deep, it's better for the people swimming on the surface never to know what's beneath...

Katie's carefully structured world is shattered by the news that her headstrong younger sister, Mia, has been found dead in Bali - and the police claim it was suicide. With only the entries of Mia's travel journal as her guide, Katie retraces the last few months of her sister's life, and - page by page, country by country - begins to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.What she discovers changes everything. But will her search for the truth push their sisterly bond - and Katie - to breaking point?

‘Mia, you seemed so happy. What changed? You were experiencing all those incredible things with 
Finn, yet ended up in Bali alone. Why were you on that cliff top in the dead of night? Were you 
thinking about what I’d said? Did you do it, Mia? Did you jump? God, Mia, what happened to you?’

First things first, the cover and title.  We weren't overly impressed by either and we felt we wouldn't have picked up a copy based on either of them.  The title could refer to anything, mermaids anyone? And we felt as the title was the sea sisterS (plural) it should have had two (better) images on the front cover.  On the subject of formatting Jenny noticed that the type set throughout the book didn't leave enough room for apostrophes so a lot of the shortened words read wrong, for example she'd read as shed.  Which as soon as you notice it is very frustrating! 

But in saying that the story was good and makes for an enjoyable, easy read. Perfect for your holidays.  We discussed our initial thoughts as to what may have happened to Mia and it was interesting as we all had a different opinion to what could have happened from the very start and enjoyed the tale unraveling.  We discussed the role of the sisters in the book and although it was felt we didn't learn anything new about a sister sister relationship we did agree it wouldn't have worked as sister brother or even as brother brother which was reflected by other characters. 
You can read the reviews Jan and I posted to the Reading Agency here  and on Amazon here.

As usual feel free to post comments or thoughts below or onto our Facebook page here, or tweet using #BuilthBooks.

Next months meeting take place on Wednesday 7th August at 7pm, Builth Wells library and we'll be discussing Phillip Pullman 'The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ.' 

We also won a another set of books from The Reading Agency, The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman, which will be discussed in September's meeting.

12 June 2013

Its a (nursery) crime

A small number of us met last week but we had 2 new members which is great so we welcome them to the group. There was almost a consensus on the Jasper Fforde book: that we found it impossible to read, partly under the circumstances during May of losing our group member Jenny.

Next meeting: 

July 3rd: The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke   

August 7th: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

We will also have a few ideas for the coming months and after a discussion on past reads (for the benefit of our new members on the range of material we read) we got talking about Kate Atkinson and one of her books the group read called "Started early took my dog." This reminded one of the group of the Emily Dickinson poem of the same title and we were treated to a brief rendition.  Its that poem I leave you with today, until next time...

I STARTED early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,
And frigates in the upper floor       
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.
But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,        
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,
And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve—       
And then I started too.
And he—he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle,—then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.       
Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

03 May 2013

We won!

Firstly, we won, we won!  I entered the book group into a competition to win a set of The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke and we won!

I have dropped the books off at Builth Wells Library and have asked Jan to contact the group to pick up a copy and get reviewing.  

Reviews are due by Tuesday 4th June so just before our next meeting but I'll happily take postings here and forward them on or you can post your review to the Groups for Everyone review blog here. The publisher is also quite keen for groups to put up their reviews on Amazon.co.uk as well, so please do add them to the book’s page.

30 April 2013

It's sad when someone you know becomes someone you knew

We deeply regret to announce the death of a long time Builth Wells Reading Group member Jenny Holland.  Jenny was a highly valued member of the group and will be deeply missed.  Our thoughts are with her husband David.

The group will meet again on Wednesday 5th June at 7pm; there will be no meeting this week.

08 April 2013

When the spinning disc toy was created, it was a top secret

*I apologise for today's blog title*

Sadly I had to miss the last Reading Group meeting (blooming wisdom teeth grumble grumble) however I have been reliably informed that it was another lively meeting with a lot of discussion around the book "The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton.

The general feeling was that it was a bit weak in the middle and could have been a shorter story.  Although I wonder if this was influenced by it being similar to the previous read ("A Time for Silence") in terms of structure; covering three different time scales.  Several members found it too wordy and a bit drawn out. 

If you've read it we would love to hear your thoughts, either post a comment below or in our Facebook group or by tweeting using #builthbooks
Our next read is Jasper Fforde - "The Big Over Easy"...

Image from www.diesel-ebooks.com
Image from www.kobobooks.com
As you can see I have found two covers for this book, would love to hear your thoughts about which cover suits the story best.

12 March 2013

07 March 2013

Can't make a meeting? Join us online

We understand, the pressures of family/work life, its cold or wet or a really good program is on the telly, whatever the reason getting to our meetings can be difficult.  Being a clever lot we thought 'hey, you know people could read the books and then post comments online' which is kind of what this blog can do but we also thought most of you hang out on Twitter or Facebook so...

You can now join discussions in the Builth Wells Reading Group Facebook Group or by 'tweeting' using #builthbooks...clever huh?

Any comments/discussions will be fed back to the group at the regular meetings in the library, and of course you can come along whenever you like.

Take that weather.

Don't forget to tell your friends :)

A Time for Silence...just not at our meetings!

I have to admit that I went to last nights meeting peeking through my fingers at the rest of the group as I loved this book and was so scared the rest of the group didn't feel the same way...but I was wrong, we all loved it. So much so that Jan has fired off an email to the publishers Honno (an independent co-operative run by women for female writers in Wales) to praise Thorne Moore for her first novel.  We enjoyed the narration style, the writing and description of the setting and had almost all of us Googling for further information!

A short synopsis of the book from the Honno website:

Then – 1933: Gwen is a dutiful wife. But as the years pass, on their desperately poor smallholding, her duty to her husband John will have a terrible price for herself and her children. Something that cannot be spoken of.

Now – When Sarah finds her grandparents' ruined farmhouse, she becomes obsessed with restoring it and turning it back into a home. Adrift after a personal tragedy, she needs something to believe in. She starts digging into her family history and is appalled to learn her grandfather was shot. Can she find justice for John? Is justice what she first thinks?

More about Thorne Moore can be found on her website here.

The only problem we had was at the end, but then you're just going to have to read it to find out what we mean.

Our read for next month is The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Image from Waterstones UK website

The next meeting for the group will be in the usual place (Builth Wells library) at 7pm on Wednesday 3rd April.

Or watch this space to find out ways you can join us online...

15 February 2013

Better late than never I suppose

I have to apologise for not writing this post up sooner, a myriad of excuses I'm afraid that aren't all that worthy if i'm being honest.  However better late than never so here is what happened at our last meeting.

We discussed our last read Susan Hill - The Shadows in the Street which received much praise from the group.  Great descriptions of the scenes and the characters meant we were really able to visualise the world and the group felt although some parts could be gruesome (their are a few murders) it wasn't silly.

Don't ask me how, but we then ended up discussing the movie tie-ins to books and whether or not they get the right actor for the character?  We would love to hear your thoughts on this as it ended being quite a long, and in parts heated, discussion.

We also had a discussion on recent news events, mainly the discovery of Richard III, so its not all business :)

The next read is Thorne Moore - A time for silence

Which will be discussed at our next meeting on Wednesday 6th March at Builth Wells Library - see you there!

07 January 2013

New Year...new book

Happy New Year readers!  Hope you enjoyed the festivities and ready and raring for a new reading year ahead.

At the last group meeting we discussed Alice Thomas Ellis "The Inn at the Edge of the World" with some mixed reviews.  It was a re-read for one group member and wasn't as exciting as remembered.  The general feeling was that it lacked an engaging plot but the descriptive elements were fantastic.  One group member commented that it would have made a very good play and we then discussed the the film adaption of the book trying to guess which character Stephen Fry would play.  However it was a narrative on an alternative Christmas so suited the time of year perfectly.

For our next read we have Susan Hill's "The Shadows in the Street"

Susan Hill : The Shadows in the Street image from Waterstones.com

Our next meeting is Wednesday 6th February at Builth Wells library, Come join us!