The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister: a book discussion…

February 12, 2009 at 2:41 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

…in which, among other things, Your Faithful Blogger receives a much-needed lesson in humility.

tinderbox When I reviewed The Tinderbox in July of 2007, I had nothing but praise for Jo Bannister’s novel concerning a runaway daughter’s disappearance into a loosely constituted community of homeless individuals. Last night, however, the book – well, quite simply, it bombed! Out of ten Usual Suspects members present, only three of us liked it: the discussion leader Louise, Frances and myself. Everyone else found fault with it; one person found it unreadable, and the rest were disappointed with it in varying degrees. Several people seemed downright disgusted with it. I was at a disadvantage as regards mounting any sort of defense of the novel because it had been so long since I read it. I knew only that I had enjoyed it very much, as my blog post reflects.

Criticism of The Tinderbox was specific and cogently reasoned. Some disliked the unspecified location of much of the action; the colony of the homeless – the “tinderbox” of the novel’s title – exists beneath a highway  overpass on the outskirts of London, but Bannister never pinpoints the exact location. Carol felt that there should have been some differentiation in speech patters among the various homeless characters. Many thought the actions of the girl’s father, Lawrence Schofield, ill-considered or just plain crazy. People were irked by  the lack of explanation as to why Cassie, the daughter, ran away from home, and almost everyone was deeply frustrated by the fact that the book ends without informing the reader as to whether Schofield’s efforts to locate his daughter ultimately meet with any success.

As often happens in book club discussions, especially when the selection proves unpopular, the group moved on to other topics.  The Schofield family problems led to a discussion of homelessness and runaway children. As an exemplar of the phenomenon of children and/or young adults  leaving home and rejecting their families, I brought up the true story of Chris McCandless. In Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, McCandless becomes a real, tangible person, even while his motives – particularly his cruel refusal to communicate with his parents or his sister – remain murky (at least, they did for this reader). We proceeded to discuss other forms of familial dysfunction, using certain currently infamous families as examples (and that’s as specific as I’m going to get!). We revisited the case of mystery author Anne Perry’s participation in a murder in 1954. This crime took place in New Zealand while Perry – then Juliet Hulme – was still in her teens. This story, dramatized in the disturbing film Heavenly Creatures, still has the power to shock. I voiced the opinion that Perry rode out the storm caused by this revelation with as much dignity and stoicism as was possible. She took full responsibility for her actions and offered no excuses. Furthermore, I believe that she has tried to expiate her adolescent transgression – admittedly a terrible one –  by living a  productive and virtuous life as an adult.

Usual Suspects benefits greatly from the varied backgrounds of its members. Pauline’s English roots help her to place some aspects of British novels in context. Ann’s experiences as a nurse and Chris’s as an employee of the Social Security Administration  were relevant to last night’s discussion and added to our understanding of the actions of troubled individuals and communities. Chris was surprised that Jo Bannister did not acknowledge the role that drug use almost invariably plays among the homeless. The need to feed an addiction can turn normally kind people reckless and vicious.

Finally, I always enjoy Mary Edna’s reminiscences about growing up in Baltimore in the 1950’s. I didn’t mention this last night, but for those interested in reading about the “real Baltimore,” Rafael Alvarez’s stories are quite wonderful. And Edward P. Jones’s masterful tales provide a similar window into the day to day lives of African Americans in mid-twentieth century Washington DC. I particularly enjoyed his first collection, Lost in the City.

Somehow in the course of the evening,  the case of the tainted peanuts also got tossed around (but not the peanuts themselves, thank goodness!). As I said, we ranged far and wide…

So: with regard to The Tinderbox, it was a fairly unanimous thumbs down from the Suspects. I have to say, I feel slightly idiotic for having glossed over what others perceived as major defects in Jo Bannister’s novel. But such is life, and particularly, book club life. As my Dad would have said with a shrug and a smile, “That’s what makes horse racing!” (And he would have known, having spent nearly every Saturday afternoon at the race track. In the way of children, I always assumed that come the weekend, everyone’s Dad did this!) If the title you select for your book club is not well received, you have to work at not  taking the negative reaction personally – at least, I have had to work at it, in the past. I am full of admiration for Louise, who more or less took it on the chin and appeared completely unfazed by the disapprobation expressed by group members – and they should express it, if that’s how they honestly feel. The entire exercise is a wash, otherwise.

So, did we have fun Monday night? we certainly did! Usual suspects is a terrific group of ladies (and one gentleman). The members are savvy, perceptive, and thoughtful. Wittiness abounds; there are plenty of laughs. And I’ve never sensed any of the ill feeling of the sort so entertainingly recounted in an article in December’s New York Times.

Jo Bannister

Jo Bannister

Louise mentioned that she had great difficulty finding author information on Jo Bannister. There is an article on Bannister in the Biography Resource Center, a Gale database. This resource and others are available via the library’s website; you’ll need to enter a library card number in order to gain full access.


I’ve been thinking that it’s about time  for me to step up to the plate and offer to lead a discussion. I think I’ll pick a classic – a universally acknowledged classic. I noticed when the sign-up sheet was going around that someone is thinking of doing Poe stories in August. Wise choice – very wise choice!


  1. Martin Edwards said,

    Roberta. I’m not very familiar with Jo Bannister’s books myself, but I do know some good judges who are very keen on them indeed. So you are definitely far from alone. And it is also beneficial for mid-list authors if their work gets attention among book groups, even if the reaction is not always universally favourable.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,


    I’d like to comment on Mr. Edwards’ comment. I don’t think that our group dismissed Jo Bannister’s writing as not being worthwhile. My feeling–although I disliked the book–is that I would be interested in trying more of her work. I think she’s a talented writer, but her topic in The Tinderbox was the problem for me plus the unresolved ending. I hope to read another book by her to see what she does with other subject matter.


  3. Louise Dietz said,

    What makes it easy to hear criticism for a book I’ve enjoyed is the way the group express they’re comments. They don’t hold the discussion leader responsible. They give reasons for the faults they find, and they always ,at least so far, let me lead another discussion.

  4. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] titles that I thoroughly enjoyed got a thumbs down from almost every one else (the Parker title and Tinderbox by Jo Bannister). Finally, I feel deeply fortunate to be part of this wonderful group of crime […]

  5. brositoes said,

    It fed her every emotion, prodding her anger and settling an icy lacing on despair. Given that theyd once been lovers, he would be more in tune to her feelings. Colors bled, and the stone trees melted into the floating water of the stream. Didnt matter that only Lanthan was touching her. The stone beneath her clutching fingers started to crumble. Now she understood and finally saw the nightmare shed been as a student. She and Radin dined with Hyle and Gala in their rooms. Her fingers slid in, unhindered. Maybe she should run and change. What was that swelling feeling deep inside her chest? What more do you want me to say? I was beginning to wonder if youd lost your mind. But… At the wrestling match, and before… All this time… She writhed, prodding the tip of him with her drenched folds. Chuckling, Brevin slid arms around Tykirs chest. None of the others had been carved to look like a reedy young tree. Unexpected emotion welled in her throat at the very thought. What if one of them had fathered a child? to giving herself to this man, knowing it would be right. Even if he had, she would have been his.

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