Secret Santa 2015 – Part One

Each December, members of Belper Book Chat exchange “Secret Santa” presents, and being a book club, the presents are – of course – all books! The giver is expected to choose a book that they have themselves read and enjoyed and the receiver then has the challenge of guessing who gifted the book that they read over Xmas!

Our meeting of January 2016 was given over to talking about the books that we had unwrapped. So what did we find in Santa’s sack?

ShockOfTheFallHilary received The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. According to The Guardian, this is a “gripping and exhilarating read” about a young schizophrenic man struggling with guilt. Hilary explained that the story is told from the different perspectives of both the main character and her brother. She recommended the book and said that it had made her think. Helen and Elaine had also read the book: Helen thought it worth a read yet described it as “middling”; Elaine also didn’t feel that the book had quite lived up to its glowing reviews. The present however was from Evan, who thought that the book was well-written, funny and moving and with an element of suspense.

Hilary’s score: an exhilarating 8/10.

WhyDontYouStopTalkingEvan’s own book was Jackie Kay’s Why Don’t You Stop Talking. This is  collection of short stories and Evan admitted to not being keen on this particular format. Nonetheless, he said that the book was beautifully written, with a great variety of writing styles and topics. The story which stood out for him was a tale about a Midland’s man, who despite his land-locked location, has a terrible fear of sharks! Overall, Evan “really enjoyed” the book, which had been gifted by Hilary.

Evan’s score: a beautiful 8/10.


Falling-AngelsAlan received Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. He described this as a historical novel concerning two families in Islington and where most of the meetings seem to take place in Highgate Cemetery. Alan thought the book was readable and would be liked by a lot of people, especially by anyone with an interest in suffragettes or churchyards! However, he felt some of the novel was rather superficial and that characters were not fully developed.  The book had been chosen by Maddie, who said that she had enjoyed learning about things that she didn’t know she would be interested in: she also chose the book as a Secret Santa as she felt it was a book that no-one would be offended by.

Alan’s score: a readable 6/10.

Nightmare AlleyMaddie’s own book looked more like a book that perhaps could give offence.  She admitted that her first impressions of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley weren’t good. The cover looked “grim” and she wasn’t excited to receive a “1946 underground classic of American Literature”. However, on reading the book, Maddie found herself gripped, despite expectations. The story concerns a young carnival lad, travelling around and learning the ways of the world. The title is perhaps misleading, for whilst some of the book is creepy, none of it is actually nightmarish: some is funny, even romantic! The book was given by Alan, who described the book as “American Dream gone wrong”: he felt that it was brilliant yet not well known.

Maddie’s score: a confounding 10/10!


Helen received  My Place, by Sally Morgan. Wikipedia says that this autobiography represents a milestone in Aboriginal literature, dealing with the author’s quest for knowledge of her family’s past and the fact that she has grown up under false pretences. Helen said that the book didn’t give any insight into Australian history, being focused purely on one individual. She was not convinced that all of the accounts were entirely factual and found the style of writing rather contrived and over-the-top.  My Place was a present from Brenda, who agreed that it was hard to see the narrative as a real story but thought that some parts were very believable, for example the section describing a father coming home after the war.

Helen’s score: an unconvinced 6/10

PhantomBrenda read The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.  Wikipedia reminds us that whilst we may think first of the various stage and film adaptations, the original behind them all is this French novel, first published as a serialisation over 1909 to 1910. Brenda thought that the novel was fabulous, commenting that she had to ration how much of it she read in a day, in order to eke it out! She found the story to be fascinating, some of it quite scary: overall, the novel paints a darker and more Gothic picture than the musical. She also liked the way in which the story is told as if it is recounting real events.

This book was given by Barbara, who – like a phantom – couldn’t be seen at the meeting.

Brenda’s score: a fabulous 10/10.

Barbara’s book was Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl.

funny-girlBarbara sent us an email, to explain that the book is about TV and Radio comedy of the ’60s and ’70s. The fictional writers Tony and Bill are supposedly based on real-life Galton and Simpson of Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, Comedy Play House, and many others.  Nick Hornby’s book reminds us that things were very different in public life in the 60s – in terms of social class, more definite roles in marriage, and a taboo on homosexuality. The novel looks at the purpose of comedy in public broadcasting , life beyond middle age when change is constant, and the belief held by those in the affluent south that anything creative could not survive north of Watford.

Initially finding nothing really amusing, Barbara says that by two-thirds in, she was chuckling and smiling benignly at the wit and pathos of the four main male characters. However, Sophie was not really a Funny Girl, as she was the only character with any emotional maturity.  Overall, a good read though a personal familiarity with the period may help.

Barbara’s score: benign but mysteriously absent!

LadderOfYearsFunny Girl had been gifted by Eileen, who was still finishing her book. This was Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Eileen described the book as a simple read, concerning an American woman in her 40’s, who walks away from her family due to feelings of dissatisfaction. Despite having an “ordinary, mundane” story, the characterisation is good.

Jill noted that our group had read this book in our early days, and had enjoyed it. That was before this blog got under way, but we have also read Noah’s Compass, by the same author.

Michelle had gifted Ladder of Years.

Eileen’s score: for the reading so far, a very unordinary 10/10!



Part Two, with the rest of our Secret Santa books, to follow soon.

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