u3a - Book Groups

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Many thanks to all the u3a members from around the UK for their book recommendations and comments about running book groups. Most are from book group leaders, but suggestions from all u3a members are welcome, as are your queries on how to make the most of your group.

During the pandemic the most book groups have been meeting online, and some have found ways to include members without Internet access, who have been able to share their thoughts about books by post or telephone.

Before listing all the book recommendations, here are some comments and queries that members have raised about how their groups are run:

Book length and accessibility

Many groups operate a policy of not asking members to read books that are more than, say, 400 or 450 pages long, but most would probably agree that longer books can be considered as long as all members agree.

With libraries still closed members are obliged to purchase books, so it may be sensible not to go for recently published books even if they are available in paperback, unless they are already being discounted by booksellers. For older books, a quick online search will usually reveal sources of much reduced new and second-hand copies – some for as little as two pounds or so.

Subject matter and scoring

Linda Parker Picken of Woking u3a asked whether during these difficult times groups should choose ‘lighter’ books and avoid those that readers might consider ‘heavy’ or ‘gloomy.’ Decisions on this will depend on the group's policy in choosing books, so it’s difficult to offer guidance, except to say the policy should be made clear to all and the choices as democratic as possible.

One advantage of asking members to give a score for each book is that this will help members to decide which books are likely to be most popular. One group I belonged to made a point of choosing books which most members would not have heard of (as opposed to, say, prize-winning and heavily promoted books). This might be a slightly risky policy but I very much enjoyed ‘discovering’ books and authors I would not have found otherwise.


u3a member Lynda Parsons of Southsea u3a recommends Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Set in America, it tells of how a child's mother walks out on her and her father, the father later abandons the child, and so she is left to fend for herself. It is a story of endurance, resilience, and love when she finally finds a friend with whom she can share her interests in the natural world, but there is also a story of how people are frightened of something or someone different when she is arrested and accused of murder.

Lynda also recommends a series of six books by Lucinda Riley, the first being the first one being The Seven Sisters. Each book is about one of seven sisters adopted by a middle-aged, very rich man from different parts of the world. When he dies unexpectedly, and his daughters only know about it after his death, the family lawyer visits them at their home in Switzerland, to give them each a letter and a small memento from their father, which will enable them, if they so choose, to find out their original family.

Jill Reville of Leicester u3a Reading For Pleasure 1 group suggests the following:

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cummings, a gripping story of a mother’s brief childhood disappearance on a Lincolnshire beach, and her daughter’s quest for the truth of what had happened. An account of family secrets and the part played by the villagers of Chapel St Leonards in the deception following the child’s return, through their communal silence,  sharply portrays the  life and social attitudes of the time. The author, who is art critic of the Observer,  uses works of art, and other visual clues, to make sense of her mother’s story, and to painstakingly piece together the story and its effect on the lives of those involved

Mrs Engels is a debut novel by Gavin McCrea which takes a little known figure from a pivotal point in history and breathes life into her. This gives the reader an engrossing and entertaining account of the revolutionary politics and principles of Engels and Marx while they struggle to live morally virtuous lives in late Victorian England.

The novel is a fictionalised account of the life of Lizzie Burns, the partner of Frederick Engels. It follows Lizzie from her life in the slums of Manchester, to a middle class and well connected life in London. Lizzie tells her story with great wit and humour, cutting through the self delusions and hypocrisies of the founding father of Communism.

Far from being a ‘heavy’ political read, the book was described by critics as ‘the best kind of historical fiction’.  It is full of vivid detail and humour, and memorably  depicts the life the character of Lizzie Burns.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield opens with the apparent drowning of a child in the River Thames at Radcott. Her revival leads to the compelling mystery of who she is, and a multi layered mystery emerges. Set in the nineteenth century, with the emergence of scientific curiosity, and early photography, the backdrop is a community which is still bound up in myth and storytelling. Skilfully written, several stories intertwine, just as the River Thames meanders through the countryside. This is a well structured and crisply written novel which, in spite of its complexity lures the reader in right from the start.

In A Man Called Ove Fredrik Backmann creates a character who all will recognise – the typical grumpy old man. But there is a story behind this curmudgeonly character which is skilfully and very gradually unfolded to provide a novel which tells of a man’s life with great affection and humour. It is a deceptively easy read – but one which may be a salutary warning to not sum people up on first impressions.  Sometimes hysterically funny, this story also contains great sadness, but above all portrays a man with determination and clarity of belief . It can perhaps be best summed up by the author’s acknowledgement in the book  to his own father, ‘because I hope I am unlike you in the smallest possible number of ways’.

Jill Reville added:  “We are a long established group of diverse tastes, but use a method of choosing books which ensures that everyone’s ideas are taken into account, in a very democratic way! This results in a wide range of books.”

Following is a list of the books the Leicester members have read which were most enjoyed and/or generated most discussion, some of which are reviewed above:

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backmann
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
A Great Fortune (first book in The Balkan Trilogy) by Olivia Manning
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Death and the Penguin by Andrew Kurkov
We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Digging to America by Ann Tyler
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Non fiction:
The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey
In My Life by Alan Johnson
Wild Swans byJung Chang
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cummings

Sue Buchan reports that two u3a book groups in Leeds have adopted a policy during the lockdowns where each member nominates a book. The suggestions are then drawn out of a hat (while on the Zoom call) to generate the next few months' reading. They have a policy of mixing classics with modern books to keep costs down, and they also consult the Hive webiste (Hive.co.uk) for ideas.

Books read recently that generated lots of conversation were The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The Leeds groups are among those who reach out to those who cannot or do not want to use Zoom. These members can send their thoughts in, to be read out, and after each meeting Sue types up notes about the discussion and circulates them to the whole group, to help keep everyone feeling included.

Lyn Morris of Buxton made the following recommendations, with some brief members’ comments.


Harvest by Jim Crace. The 'flavour of the book' stays with you long after you put it down - transports you back into a different world.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (if only we could try again / turn the clock back, when we make a mistake!)

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (if you are a Rose Tremain fan and like historical fiction…)

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond.Strongly recommended - this is a children's/young adult book and a quick read but so well written and 'deeply human' - lovely to review and discuss)

The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt. An adult book - long and very complex, but fascinating and rather beautiful in its complexity.


The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. A broad view of history and the changes in Europe wrought by WWII focused in onto tiny netsuke (Japanese mini-carvings) - a family history written by an artist)/

Gossip from the Forest by Sarah Maitland. A woman's personal journey into forests to discover the vital links between cultures, forests and stories. Each chapter is stand-alone so could provide good focus for reading groups.

Finally, Jack White of Hucknall u3a offered the following as an avid reader of non fiction. “I can recommend How to read numbers:  a guide to stats in the news, (and knowing when to trust them) by Tom and David Chivers. It is an absorbing read with clear explanations about how statistics can be manipulated to 'prove' whatever is 'needed' by Government, newspapers etc.  This is particularly useful to understand the figures used during the Covid 19 crisis.

Thank you again for all your recommendations and comments. Please keep them coming – and happy reading!

Richard Peoples

Subject Adviser, Book Groups