To get you through those long winter nights, here are the latest reviews and recommendations from our Reading Group Collection and a few titles you might have missed.

If you want to know more about our free Reading Group Collection, you can find out about it here or browse our collection here.

If you’d like to join or have further questions, pop in to your nearest Warwickshire County Council managed library and speak to a member of staff.

The Card by Arnold Bennett

Two Warwickshire-based groups sent us their reviews of this title – both of which were positive. For one group, the book was described as “light-hearted, full of humour and very witty” and all group members enjoyed reading it.

Another let us know that most of their group enjoyed it – particularly its portrayal of Stoke on Trent. They found the writing very descriptive and the story line kept them guessing.

From the book’s blurb: Set in the raw, Victorian world of the ‘Five Towns’, ‘The Card’ tells the extremely funny and tangled story of Denry Machin’s rise from mediocrity to fame through a series of ludicrous and yet perversely successful schemes. He dances, pleads, cheats, and inspires his way through life in a series of set-pieces which wonderfully evoke a now long-gone world of civic balls, seaside excursions, newspaper boys, and patent chocolate remedies. As everybody said after one of his most stylish coups, Denry ‘was not simply a card; he was the card.’

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

“We all really like this book. We thought it was beautifully written, with believable, sympathetic characters and a gripping story. It generated a good discussion about Britain in the 1950s, and life in general.

We rated this excellent and would definitely recommend it”.

From the book’s blurb: 1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of 40 – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys.

One Hundred Years of Lenni and Marot by Marianne Cronin

A group based in Alcester shared these thoughts with us: “We had a good discussion – we thought the characters were well drawn and although it could have been a depressing read, the humour throughout the book made it a lovely, inspiring read. We’d recommend it as there’s plenty to discuss and the story does develop the characters beautifully”

From the book’s blurb: Life is short – no one knows that better than seventeen year-old Lenni Petterssen. On the Terminal Ward, the nurses are offering their condolences already, but Lenni still has plenty of living to do. When she meets 83-year-old Margot Macrae, a fellow patient offering new friendship and enviable artistic skills, Lenni’s life begins to soar in ways she’d never imagined.

As their bond deepens, a world of stories opens up: of wartime love and loss, of misunderstanding and reconciliation, of courage, kindness and joy. Stories that have led Lenni and Margot to the end of their days.

Little White Lies by Philippa East

The thoughts of a group based in Warwick: “Our small group in the main enjoyed this book. We thought the characters were well-drawn, particularly Abigail. The intricacies of the plot were cleverly revealed, leading us to the revelation at the end.

Quite a page turner. Might be considered a bit of a “whodunnit” but certainly not a typical one”.

The book’s blurb: Anne White only looked away for a second, but that’s all it took to lose sight of her young daughter. But seven years later, Abigail is found. And as Anne struggles to connect with her teenage daughter, she begins to question how much Abigail remembers about the day she disappeared.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Another title we received multiple reviews for this quarter. The first group told us that they had a very good discussion in response to The Second Sleep – they found it prophetic and intriguing. They also called it “a challenging and compulsive read” that not all their members enjoyed. Their overall view of the book ranged from ‘excellent’ for some to ‘poor’ for others.

The second group sent us this review: “We nearly always have a good discussion. Some people had read this for a second time. The fragility of our civilisation was disturbing and yet a possibility – the apocalypse could happen! The ending was a bit unsatisfactory”. Some of their readers wanted a bit more detail or even diagrams.

The book’s blurb: 1468. A young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arrives in a remote Exmoor village to conduct the funeral of his predecessor. The land around is strewn with ancient artefacts – coins, fragments of glass, human bones – which the old parson used to collect. Did his obsession with the past lead to his death?

As Fairfax is drawn more deeply into the isolated community, everything he believes – about himself, his faith and the history of his world – is tested to destruction.

The Spy and The Traitor by Ben McIntyre

A group in Nuneaton recommend this non fiction title as, although it is non-fiction, it reads like a John le Carre novel. They found it enthralling but felt that the life of a spy would be a lonely one.

The book’s blurb: On a warm July evening in 1985, a middle-aged man stood on the pavement of a busy avenue in the heart of Moscow, holding a plastic carrier bag. In his grey suit and tie, he looked like any other Soviet citizen. The bag alone was mildly conspicuous, printed with the red logo of Safeway, the British supermarket.

The man was a spy. A senior KGB officer, for more than a decade he had supplied his British spymasters with a stream of priceless secrets from deep within the Soviet intelligence machine. No spy had done more to damage the KGB. The Safeway bag was a signal: to activate his escape plan to be smuggled out of Soviet Russia.

So began one of the boldest and most extraordinary episodes in the history of spying. Ben Macintyre reveals a tale of espionage, betrayal and raw courage that changed the course of the Cold War forever.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The review of a group based in Atherstone: “Beautifully written and indeed lyrical as it states on the front cover. At times harrowing, this tale of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 wasn’t a quick read. Several of the group didn’t finish it, although they do intend to. Gave insight into Ethiopian history, particularly under Haile Selassie”.

The book’s blurb: Ethiopia. 1935. With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employer, Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilise his strongest men before the Italians invade. Hirut and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead.

When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. But how could she have predicted her own personal war, still to come, as a prisoner of one of Italy’s most vicious officers?

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

Two reviews for this one. The first: “The book generated a good discussion and was enjoyed by the group. The story was interesting, spanning three generations and was an easy read. Post natal depression and how it was dealt with in the 1950s onwards was discussed in detail. It was an interesting and informative book”.

The second: “A lovely story! Most of the group really enjoyed this. You were easily sucked in and taken on a journey of emotional discovery. Sad in places but you can’t help loving the ending. Easy style of writing but hard to put down.

Time hopping moments of discovery made this a lovely story. It appealed to most of our group and makes you want to visit the Isles of Scilly”.

The book’s blurb: 1951. Esther Durrant, a young mother, is committed to an isolated mental asylum by her husband. Run by a pioneering psychiatrist, the hospital is at first Esther’s prison but soon becomes her refuge. 2018. When free-spirited marine scientist Rachel Parker is forced to take shelter on a far-flung island off the Cornish coast during a research posting, she discovers a collection of hidden love letters. 

Captivated by their passion and tenderness, Rachel is determined to find the intended recipient. Meanwhile, in London, Eve is helping her grandmother, a renowned mountaineer, write her memoirs. When she is contacted by Rachel, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to reveal secrets kept buried for more than sixty years.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

From a group in Warwick: “As usual, we had a good discussion about the book, if one-sided as none of us really enjoyed it. We all agreed, it wasn’t the best book we have read.

Several people said they did not enjoy the fantasy aspect of it. It did, however, prompt several of us to look at the background – we discovered that there had been a Japanese exhibition in Hyde Park in the 1880s and that Sullivan had indeed visited the Exhibition when researching Japan for the writing of The Mikado. We also discovered that if you google ‘Filigree Street’, whilst there’s not a watchmakers, there is a jewellers!

As Nathaniel started with such a narrow life, it was clear that things might change but we were not convinced by the story. Whilst the characters had the potential to be intriguing, they never seemed to come to life and leap off the page. Whilst the threads of the story are drawn together and tied up at the end, we felt this was not a satisfying read”.

The book’s blurb: In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find the lock picked and a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

A Woman In The Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

From a group in Shipston: “Well received by all our members and generated a lively discussion on a wide range of topics – the role of women at the time, the power of nature, human resilience, why someone would choose to live so remotely, parallels to life under Covid lockdown.

Some members felt they would have liked to know more about Christiane and Herman’s back story. The description of the Arctic landscape and life was very powerful. Overall, a compulsive and good read. We would recommend it – an unusual read and refreshing to not have a “big issue” thrust at you”.

The book’s blurb: In 1934, the Austrian painter Christiane Ritter travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen to spend a year with her husband, an explorer and researcher. At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies.

But, as time passes, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty. This rediscovered classic memoir tells the incredible tale of a woman defying society’s expectations to find freedom and peace in the adventure of a lifetime.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

From a group in Warwick: “There was plenty of discussion. We all felt that it was all too easy to imagine Vienna and the tobacconist’s shop in 1930s Vienna. Freud lived in Vienna until 1938 and was known to smoke cigars so there was a tobacconist that supplied them – why not Otto Trsnyek?

The story does make an easy read – there’s a sense of doom right from the beginning with the description of the storm and the sense that this will not be a ‘happy ever after’ type story. Everyone said that, despite being well written and an apparently good translation, this was a book to be read in short instalments.

One of our older readers who remembers the War said that she found the story all too believable. It is sad to think that Franz who appeared throughout to be a very innocent country boy may have represented the many thousands of people who disappeared during the Second World War.

None of us enjoyed the book so it is not easy to recommend. However, it serves as a stark reminder of how the Nazis did behave”.

The book’s blurb: When 17-year-old Franz exchanges his home in the idyllic beauty of the Austrian lake district for the bustle of Vienna, his homesickness quickly dissolves amidst the thrum of the city. In his role as apprentice to the elderly tobacconist Otto Trsnyek, he will soon be supplying the great and good of Vienna with their newspapers and cigarettes.

Among the regulars is a Professor Freud, whose predilection for cigars and occasional willingness to dispense romantic advice will forge a bond between him and young Franz.

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

“Most members thought this was an excellent book, story lines and characters were very well developed. It provoked much discussion, almost all positive.

Would definitely recommend as well written, engaging and very enjoyable”.

The book’s blurb: Our brains stay active for ten minutes after our heart stops beating.

For Leila, each minute brings with it a new memory: growing up with her father and his wives in a grand old house in a quiet Turkish town; watching the women gossip and wax their legs while the men went to mosque; sneaking cigarettes and Western magazines on her way home from school; running away to Istanbul to escape an unwelcome marriage; falling in love with a student who seeks shelter from a riot in the brothel where she works.

Most importantly, each memory reminds Leila of the five friends she met along the way – friends who are now desperately trying to find her.

The Gap Of Time by Jeanette Winterson

“A well-written, easy read that sadly wasn’t enjoyed by everyone. We agreed it might have helped if more of us were familiar with The Winter’s Tale.

The book generated a reasonable discussion – mainly around the author and how much of the narrative was personal. If you like Shakespeare and have enjoyed other Winterson books, then it’s worth reading.

From the book’s blurb: Jeanette Winterson’s version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ vibrates with echoes of the original but tells a contemporary story of betrayal, paranoia, redemption and hope. 

Time itself is a player in this game of high stakes that will either end in tragedy or forgiveness, showing us that, however far we have been separated, whatever is lost shall be found.

Titles in The Reading Group Collection You Might Have Missed

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything – arduous pilgrimages, medical consultations, dances with prophets, appeals to God.

But when her in-laws insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear. It will lead to jealousy, betrayal, and despair. Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, this book sings with the voices, colours, joys, and fears of its surroundings.

Milkman by Anna Burns

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. 

But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

In The Full Light Of The Sun by Clare Clark

‘In the Full Light of the Sun’ follows the fortunes of three Berliners caught up in a devastating scandal of 1930s’ Germany. It tells the story of Emmeline, a wayward, young art student; Julius, an anxious, middle-aged art expert; and a mysterious art dealer named Rachmann who are at the heart of Weimar Berlin at its hedonistic, politically turbulent apogee and are whipped up into excitement over the surprising discovery of 32 previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

Based on a true story, unfolding through the subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazis, this gripping tale is about beauty and justice, and the truth that may be found when our most treasured beliefs are revealed as illusions.

The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather

This is untold story of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War. In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich. His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre – Auschwitz.

It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying designs. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West, culminating in the mass murder of over a million Jews.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything. Forced to abandon his wife and child, he signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies.

But, remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England.

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

Bea and Dan, recently married, rent out their tiny flat to escape London for a few precious months. Driving through France they visit Bea’s dropout brother Alex at the hotel he runs in Burgundy. Disturbingly, they find him all alone and the ramshackle hotel deserted, apart from the nest of snakes in the attic.

When Alex and Bea’s parents make a surprise visit, Dan can’t understand why Bea is so appalled, or why she’s never wanted him to know them; Liv and Griff Adamson are charming, and rich. They are the richest people he has ever met. Maybe Bea’s ashamed of him, or maybe she regrets the secrets she’s been keeping.

Tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape.

Ask Again Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Gillam, upstate New York: a town of ordinary, big-lawned suburban houses. The Gleesons have recently moved there and soon welcome the Stanhopes as their new neighbours.

Lonely Lena Gleeson wants a friend but Anne Stanhope – cold, elegant, unstable – wants to be left alone. It’s left to their children – Lena’s youngest, Kate, and Anne’s only child, Peter – to find their way to one another. To form a friendship whose resilience and love will be almost broken by the fault line dividing both families, and by the terrible tragedy that will engulf them all.

A tragedy whose true origins only become clear many years later.

The Children’s Block by Otto B Kraus

Alex Ehren is poet, a prisoner and a teacher in block 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the children’s block. He spends his days trying to survive while illegally giving lessons to his young charges while shielding them as best he can from the impossible horrors of the camp.

But trying to teach the children is not the only illicit activity that Alex is involved in. Alex is keeping a diary.

Originally published as ‘The Painted Wall’, Otto Kraus’s autobiographical novel, tells the true story of 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and June 1944.

The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luisella

Suppose you and Pa were gone, and we were lost. What would happen then?

A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. A mother, a father, a boy and a girl, they head south west, to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. They drive for hours through desert and mountains. They stop at diners when they’re hungry and sleep in motels when it gets dark.

The little girl tells surreal knock knock jokes and makes them all laugh. The little boy educates them all and corrects them when they’re wrong. The mother and the father are barely speaking to each other.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In the book which put South America on the literary map, Marquez tells the haunting story of a community in which the political, the personal and the spiritual worlds intertwine.

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Del Jordan’s said goodbye to childhood – to catching frogs, grazing knees, singing songs to save England from Hitler – and now she’s impatient for more. More than she can find in the encyclopedias sold by her mother, or in the half-understood innuendos and hair-shampooing advice dispensed by best friend Naomi, or in the whispers of boys during backseat fumbles.

Just like the girls in the movies, she wants to get started on real life. In her only novel, Alice Munro turns her eye to the frustrations, embarrassments, glee and bewilderment of adolescence, and to the brushes with sex, death, violence and birth that shape the lives of girls and women.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become far more famous than any of these five women.

Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories