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July Book Club notes for Karen Swan’s The Last Summer


What could make a better summer read than Karen Swan’s The Last Summer ? Local author Karen Swan is a Top 3 Sunday Times Bestseller and always has several books in the Amazon Top 500. After a year of some quite intense reading I thought our book clubbers could do with a good relaxing break over the summer. Did they like it? Yes, and no…

“It’s not like the rest of the stuff we’ve read” said one. “This is not literary fiction”, said another. “The writing is lazy and sloppy”, said a third pointing out several hackneyed phrases, totally unlikely events (falling from a cliff into a boat without injury!) as well as inconsistencies in the characters and plot. “And” said another, quite vexed, “there isn’t a Wren in it”. That stymied some of us, but others had done their research. St Kilda has a unique species of Wrens and had Lord Sholto really been interested in birdlife, surely he would have wanted to see a St Kilda wren?


But was it a good story? I was interested that everyone had finished it. Often, when Book Clubbers decide they don’t like a book they don’t bother getting to the end, but everyone had finished The Last Summer. Not only had they finished it, but several of them had then done further research on St Kilda (a world heritage site for both nature and culture) and on the evacuation. “It was a fabulous idea” and “the detail at the beginning was stunning”. Swan really brought to life the harshness of the living conditions and what it must have felt like to be part of that community. Another reader (who didn’t make our meeting) commented that she was so glad she had just read Adam Nicolson’s The Sea Room as the books gave context to each other. One reader wondered how many young would move back there now, if they were given that opportunity (post meeting note: my son would!)? Another drew similarities between the St Kilda community, and the ‘lost tribes’ in the Amazon rainforest – how would the move to the mainland/the influence of ‘civilisation’ affect them? I had been surprised, when I flicked through it, how little of it was set on St Kilda (just under half) – yet it was the St Kilda section which stuck in my – and everyone else’s – minds. Once Effie moved to the main house it became largely romance – and fairly difficult to believe that this rough young island girl would capture the attention of the Lord’s son (tho’ isn’t that what escapism is all about?!). There was a general harrumph about the ending which confused several in the group - and no-one expected the cliff-hanger.

A few in the group had really enjoyed it – right book, right time – as had a few who didn’t make it to the meeting. Will you read book two, I asked (The Stolen Hours, just out in HB and now in the shop!)? Some will, some won’t… and that’s what books are all about. Was it a good book? Well, that means different things to different people. It was not a literary book. But it was a book which sent us all off to look for more information, which made us think about different ways of living and being, and which connected us to other books and contexts. Most of all, it was a book which kept us turning the pages right to the end and provided, for some, moments of escapism.

What else had we all been reading? Following last month’s book club several of us had read Small Things Like These for a second time – and some for the first: one found it a very difficult read as a catholic. One brave soul continued the toxic catholic guilt theme with John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies which she was an amazing and easy read about a man’s search for self. The same but different was Once an Addict, which one of our members had been given by the prison chaplain (she works as a prison visitor). She found the gritty story of a life gone wrong compelling, and very reflective of those she met in her work – but struggled with the ending which became more of a religious treatise.

Some readers were still enjoying slowly pondering over Adam Nicolson’s writing – Sissinghurst, so full of detail you have to take time to enjoy it, and The Smell of Summer Grass – which “made me fall in love with Sussex all over again”. Another is working her way through Alison Weir’s Six Wives series and has just finished the highly readable Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen… three more to go. Other old friends included a bit of Dickens (Hard Times – so funny), John Grisham (“I’d forgotten how good he is!”), Cowley Heller’s Paper Palace, some Amor Towles, and Herman Diaz’s Trust – which, we were told, was even better than Towles – so definitely worth trying. By chance, two readers were enjoying Rachel Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle – and recommend reading it before it becomes a film, whilst someone else was enjoying Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series – which was made into a film in the early noughties. One book clubber had read a review for The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard which claimed it as a forgotten masterpiece. It is a rather gloomy love story set during the second War and is indeed very good.

A new member was enjoying Camera Girl by Carl Sferrazza Anthony - the story of Jackie Kennedy, who led quite a bohemian life before she married the President. Michael was dipping in and out of a biography of Ravillious – dense but fascinating. We were told that Sadiq Kahn’s book on climate change – Breathe – was very readable but tricky for cynic…! Bookshop Chris had loved Ben Macintyre’s Colditz which told a well rounded piece of history, as well as Before We Saw Goodbye (the sequel to Before the Coffee Gets Cold) by Tos Kawaquchi. This is set in coffee shop where you can travel back in time but never change the future and has much to say about regret. We will read it towards the end of the year when it comes out.


I hope you enjoy whatever you are reading in this gloomy, wet August (!). Our next Book club choice is here is the beehive by Sarah Crossan - and copies are now in-store!

Our August Book Club read is here is the beehive by Sarah Crossan. Meeting Monday 21 August, 6.30pm.

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