Books: Time for a good read

Shetland has a thriving network of readers’ groups located all over the isles, each reading a wide variety of books. Marsali Taylor spoke to members of two of these groups, in Lerwick and the Westside, to find out what their appeal is for readers.

Reading seems a solitary activity, so many people are surprised to find how popular readers’ groups are throughout Shetland. 

The Lerwick Book Group (LBG) meets monthly in the Old Library Centre. The LBG was set up by Shetland Arts Trust in 2005 and is now run by Shetland Library. Meetings are open to anyone and a list of the books for the coming months is on the library’s website. Books are chosen by drawing a member’s name, and that person chooses a book they’ve enjoyed. Previous choices range from classics like Mrs Gaskell’s North and South to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The list isn’t all novels – there are also non-fiction titles, like Touching the Void and Orchid Fever.

I asked Morag Nicolson, the young people’s services librarian in Lerwick, and a founder member of the group, about their meetings.

“Well, we met last Tuesday, and had nine people there – that’s about average. There’s more than double that on our mailing list – a lot of folk dip in and dip out, or sometimes people come in for one particular book. The person who chose the book opens the session by saying why they picked that book.

“After we’ve discussed the book, we often go on to chat about other books we’ve enjoyed, and share them around with each other. If the book’s been filmed, we’ll often pass a copy of the film around, and discuss that too. On the Beach by Neville Shute, for example, about the world ended by nuclear war, I’d watched it before, but what really got me this time round was that to make sure they knew it was set in Australia, they played ‘Waltzing Matilda’ through the entire film – it was so annoying!

“I used to be a school librarian, so I’m particularly pleased to see more young people here this year – it’s really inspiring seeing young women of 20 to 25 coming along and speaking so knowledgeably and fluently about the books they’ve read.”

Morag finds the LBG list useful when talking to customers in the library. “It’s a great inspiration for people looking for a good read. There’s not one book I’ve not enjoyed, although there were a good number I’d never have picked up in a month of Sundays, like Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen, about how competitive orchid collectors are – it was just brilliant.”

The group also has their own blog site. “It was Aileen Paterson, our systems librarian, who set that up – we were worried that the group might fall apart after the initial enthusiasm. It gives members a chance to have their say, and keeps us motivated. We try and update it after each meeting and most times the person who chose the book does the blog as well.

“Karen Fraser, our customer services librarian, can break down the figures of ‘hits’ on our blog, and apparently we’re big in South Korea! The blog with the most ‘hits’ was the one on Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson, the story of how Simpson struggled back to base camp after his climbing partner cut him loose. It wasn’t a book most of us would have picked up, but I really enjoyed it, and we had a really wide-ranging discussion after it, about the book, but also about risk-taking, and what we’d have done in that situation.”

Another way Karen and Morag have kept enthusiasm up is by linking with other groups, both nationally and locally.

“We’d only been going a year,” Morag recalled, “when we were invited to read the Man Booker prize shortlist and go to the prizegiving. It was a lot of reading in a short time, but it was great fun. We felt really, really part of it, and it was the first time we’d met with other book groups. Now we keep up links with other groups – for example we’ve had several joint meetings with the Whalsay group.

“Karen’s also good at wangling free books etc – for example, where a publisher sends you the first two chapters of a book, and you have to feed back. The last one of those was a Japanese one, and we went on to read the full book, which really lived up to the opening – it was wonderful. There was another one where we had to pick the best first chapter out of six, and we all agreed on the best, but the whole book was a real let-down – our worst book ever.”

The group also takes the chance to meet up with authors who visit Shetland, like crime writer Stuart MacBride and poet Sally Reid. “It’s really good for the group to meet an author and discuss their writing with them.”

I asked Morag if she’d found a particularly favourite book through the readers’ group.

“The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It was one I wouldn’t normally pick up, but it was excellent. Another one was Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt – it’s an account of how she cycled across the East, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a lovely book, but I found it so sad, her description of Afghanistan, and all the hospitality she met there, the families who took her in and the people she met, and I just thought of how our media vilifies people there.”

The library also hosts a lunchtime readers’ group.

“It’s Fiona Macdonald who runs that. It’s called ‘Lunch with Dickens’, and the book is always a classic. They read a bit, discuss it, and read more. The turn-out’s usually about half a dozen.”

There are a number of other readers’ groups across Shetland; I’ve heard of ones in Yell and Whalsay, in Vidlin, and I’m a regular member of the Westside one.

Like the Lerwick Book Group, the Westside Readers’ Group was started in 2005 by then literature development officer, Alex Cluness. It met at first in Bonhoga Gallery, but then moved to members hosting each session. It’s a small group, with less than a dozen members, including six who’ve been with the group since it started.

Catherine Smith of Bixter is so keen a member of the group that she organises her trips south around the meetings. Like Morag, she feels it really brings her reading back to life.

“Apart from the social element, which is great, I’ve read all sorts of books I never would have read, and mostly I’ve enjoyed them – there haven’t been that many which I’ve really disliked, and only one I didn’t even try – it was Wolf Totem, about the life of a nomad tribe in Mongolia. Another member, who knows I can’t bear reading about cruelty to animals, warned me not to read it as it was very brutal in places. Otherwise, I’m glad to have my horizons widened.”

Catherine, who’s a retired Church of Scotland deacon, had her horizons widened more than she expected when the group decided to do a Mills and Boon night.

“I went into the library and chose one, and it was very racy – I remembered them as being simple love stories. Apparently they have degrees of sex in them, and I’d picked the hottest category.”

The group doesn’t meet in July and August, but members pick two books to read, one hefty classic and one read-on-the-beach.

“My favourite book was one of the ‘patio reading’ ones – I call it that because I hope to spend the whole summer out in the patio in a deck chair, reading. It was the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, and it was a real discovery. Each book led on to the next, with another narrator taking you deeper into the events of the first book. I was just spell-bound.

“Another one of the summer ones – I’m not sure if enjoyed is the right word, but I got a terrific lot out of it, was the Pat Barker Regeneration trilogy, set in World War I. The first book’s about Owen and Sassoon meeting at Craiglockhart Hospital, and John Haswell’s excellent play about them was in Walls Hall then too, so it all linked together.”

Catherine’s also aquired a new favourite author, Elizabeth von Arnheim. “We read Elizabeth’s German Garden, and then the one where they went off in a caravan for the summer, and after that someone lent me a video of a film of one of her books, set in Italy, and another member lent that book. She asked for companions to go to Italy, and these four women took a break there – it just made me want to pack my bags and head for San Salvatore.”

Catherine is a keen baker, and so when the group read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer, she decided to prepare a surprise for them, by presenting them with a genuine potato peel pie.

“The book was about life in Guernsey under German occupation, and the recipe was in the book. During the war there was no sugar, and they used beetroot, but I couldn’t get fresh, so I washed some pickled beetroot, boiled it up and mashed it with the inside of baked potatoes, and put that in a dish, then covered it with the potato skins cut in strips.”

What did it taste like?

“Surprisingly good! I was amazed – I expected everyone to take a wee teaspoonful, just to try it, but it all went!”

June Ross-Smith, of Weisdale, is a newcomer to the group. “I was delighted to be asked to join the readers’ group. Since Stanley died I have had no one to discuss with or talk about books. We were both keen readers and swapped most of them between us, so I really need a book group now.”

Christmas doesn’t include a lot of peaceful reading time, so the group’s December meeting – June’s first visit – was movie night, with reading the book being optional. Films the group’s enjoyed have included The Innocents (based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) and Anna Karenina. This year’s film was Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s take on the book by Daphne Du Maurier.

“I wasn’t expecting a film at all,” June said. “I can’t even remember if I’d read Rebecca although I do remember the film very well, and it was a real pleasure to see it again. I think that I would like to read another book that has been filmed then see the film, so that we can discuss it – I certainly like the idea of book followed by film. I enjoyed the meeting very much and I’m looking forward to the next one.”

“Ah, yes, the film nights are great fun,” Catherine said. “I particularly enjoyed The Turn of the Screw, which I’d never read.”

Like the Lerwick Book Group, the Westside Readers’ Group sets out to read a wide variety, including biography, history, science, travel and poetry.  Recent reads include Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Magnetic North by Sarah Wheeler, Spike: an intimate memoir by Norma Farms and Dreams from my Father by Barrack Obama. Monty Don’s The Jewel Garden, about his fight with depression, is their January book.

Morag will be reading The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay for their January meeting. “Again, it’s not one I’d have chosen, and it’s a great, thick book, but I know I’ll enjoy it.”

Readers’ groups are always open to new members. The next LBG book is on Tuesday 18th January in the Old Library Centre at 7.30, and anyone is welcome to turn up. The next Westside meeting is on 11th January in Aith – please contact me on 810452 for venue details.

Marsali Taylor


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