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Reflections from remote reading groups

When lockdown started back in March 2020, we all wondered how to keep the spirit of reading groups alive in prisons while they couldn’t meet in person.

Thanks to the dedication of staff inside prisons and reading group volunteers outside, we had a great response to our support for remote reading groups. Staff got residents reading a chosen book, asked them to write their responses to the book, and collated written feedback which could then be handed out to everyone taking part.

This inspired us to provide a Book Talk resources page, to make things a bit easier for prison staff and encourage more prisons to take part. There are now over 40 prisons using the resources and ordering books from us.

These reports from two groups at HMP Downview give a brilliant insight into how much engagement, enthusiasm and effort is involved in the remote reading groups:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

A novel about four elderly people living in a care home: does this mean it only appeals to older readers? 

  • No, it’s just a story set there 
  • I sincerely hope not! I hope children of parents in homes will read it, and if they do, I hope they make more effort (If they don’t already) in keeping their connection strong, and be always mindful of the inevitability of death that weaves it’s way in and out of this book, and how precious life and the people in it is and are. 
  • No, not at all, it is very intriguing and I think the story line appeals to all ages 
  • No I think this book would appeal to all ages.  Although it is based in a care home, the story is not just about the elderly.  They all have a story to tell.

Some of the chapters are written in the voice of a narrator, some in the voice of Joyce. Why do you think this is?   And does this way of telling the story appeal to you? 

  • It gives a more personal touch from what Joyce’s experience is 
  • It’s really important to separate them because of the way the story unfolds.  It’s almost like little summaries that are the beads on a chain of events.  Loved this style.
  • As you read the story you feel personally addressed in the chapters of Joyce. It also is a smart way to add more detail and a different view of the events that happen. 

As well as many of the characters, the novel keeps a lot of secrets till very near the end, such as the things we discover about Penny. What do you think about this? 

  • Makes you want to read as quickly as possible and not put it down. 
  • Daft question(!) – if we knew the secrets in the beginning it would spoil the entire thrill of reading and having our own little side plots & guesses. 
  • It is a good thing as you are intrigued to the very last chapters and once you find out the final secrets you understand a lot from the previous chapters. 
  • I like that things are kept from you as you keep reading to find out more. 

How would you describe the book to someone who hasn’t read it? Is it a book you would pass on to a friend? 

  • Yes, it has humour and it changes your view on elderly people 
  • I’ve already recommended it to a friend I spoke to on the phone today!! Apart from the obvious humour it’s beautifully written with so much respect for our older generation.  I’ve worked in and visited a similar place and Richard has captured both the loneliness, the camaraderie and the ‘bugger it, I’m gonna do it’ attitude I have experienced from my time spent with some of the most amazing elderly folk. 
  • This story is about forming relationships, building bridges, the intensity of love and mystery.  It is an interesting read with unexpected twists and turns and some heartfelt moments along the way.  I would pass this on and recommend it to others. 

The Donor by Clare MacIntosh

What were your immediate thoughts when you saw the book cover and title? Did it appeal to you and if so, why? If not, why not? 

The responses from all of us ranged hugely: 

  • “Yes, it looked like a thriller and from the title it was obvious that this was more than a straightforward donor transplant.” 
  • “The title and caption led me to the obvious conclusion that one party would be giving something to another. The cover picture alludes to a letter and the white feathers are typically attributed to a message from usually a loved one who has passed away.” 
  • “I wasn’t sure as I have not read many short books.  I wasn’t sure if it was organ donation or money.” 
  • “As a book cover it was appealing but it has nothing to do with the story and it would make me think twice if I saw another book by the same author.” 
  • “It appealed to me just by looking at the cover as I could tell I would be hooked on the book.” 

“Organ donation is done without any desire for reward.  It is the most selfless thing you can ever do.”  What is your opinion? Do you think certain characteristics of a donor become you if you have a transplant? 

  • The general consensus is that organ donation is a selfless act although one of our readers disagreed “…it is not selfless as you are no longer a “self.” 
  • We all had our own valid and interesting opinions on whether certain characteristics of a donor become us.  Most of us did not think that would happen in reality on the basis that our organs are simply body parts.   
  • “Our soul is something that you cannot see but is what makes us.” 
  • One of our readers felt quite strongly that we do retain an essence of the previous owner. 
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