Monday, 14 April 2014

"My Dear, I wanted to tell you" by Louisa Young - May 2014

Every year, London's reading groups can join "CityReadLondon" and receive free books for their reading groups - last year it was "A Week in December" by Sebastian Faulks, the year before it was Oliver Twist for Charles Dickens' 200th Birthday.

This year, all of London's reading groups (that sign up to CityRead) are reading the World War I novel "My Dear..." by Louisa Young. Pop back onto our blog in May to read what Clapton library's reading group thought about it.

See this page for events in all the participating London boroughs:

"Oh Dear Silvia" by Dawn French - April 2014

Our group met on 3rd April and discussed the book - review to come very soon!

"The Wedding Gift" by Marlen Suyapa Bodden - March 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency:

This book divided our book group. One member, who found the text interesting, liked and felt a sense of identification with it, “couldn’t stop reading”, and completed the novel in two sessions; others were far less complimentary with a number of readers unable, or unwilling, to read to the end. This reader was in the latter group finding the text, due to its written style, a challenge to complete.

Whilst everyone agreed that there was a good and deserving story in The Wedding Gift , a number of the group felt strongly that it had not been brought out by the author. What the story required was a far better writer! Criticisms of Boden’s writing were strong, it was passionless, rushed, careless, sugar coated, flawed in plot, and relied far too heavily on dialogue. Boddn, it was felt, was nt great at building up suspense, nor was she able to make voices distinct; at times it was difficult, some readers found, to know who was speaking to whom. In relying so heavily on dialogue she failed to develop sound descriptive passages, which, if used, would have allowed readers to have had a sense of character and place. Why, for example, was there no description of the sea or Sarah’s reaction to seeing it for the first time in her life?

The fact that very few of the characters were developed (including Sarah and Theodora, the main characters), angered readers, but this lack of development was not limited to characters alone. The plot left the majority of the group wondering how certain situations had been reached. Its denouement was to be found in two paragraphs at the end of page 461 and the beginning of 462, but where was the lead up to it that would have made it believable? It simply was not there – the reader was just told. And by not being believable the writer did not do sufficient service to attacking misogyny and racism, the two very serious, but unsuccessfully challenged, themes in her book. By Jasmina

"The Gallery of Vanished Husbands" by Natasha Solomons - February 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency:

All agreed that the book was competent, engaging and easy to read. Juliet certainly posed as a cipher for the other characters in the book . But some found her unbelievable as a main character . The hyperbole she used for her role in the London gallery was alike to Valerie, Charles’s mother. This supported misgivings about her character.

The conflict between the woman that ran a London gallery and the traditional Jewish wife was interesting and threw some light on how difficult it was to be an Aguna following the war. The use of composition that describes the transition of thinking between the 50s and 60’s was thought to be brave and skilful. However the overall opinion also was that the author had possibly attempted too much. Given her authors’ note we didn’t believe that Rosie was done justice too.

Leonard, the son of her missing husband George summoned much more empathy to his character, some thought more could have been done with this and with the relationships with his dads’ other family. Frieda’s frustration too was very real and we could understand why a teenage girl who could not find her mother in so many portraits rebelled in the only way left to her.

There were mixed opinions about the many descriptive passages of the paintings . Some found the visualisations wonderful , others thought them superficial . There did seem to be some correlation between the many artists behind the very different paintings of one Juliet and the newspaper cutting of the different missing husbands (as summed up in the book title) but if this was intentional it served for many to make Juliet less real.

Most found Max a far more believable and moving character, one reader described the story of Max’s sketchbook and its loss , as a piece of gold in a box of imitation jewellery. His dramatic departure from Juliets’ life and the final painting found after his death , added more resonance to the gallery and to the novel.

All the members of Clapton group agreed they’d happily read more of the author's works. By Ann

It is written in an easy-to-read style, both in print and vocabulary choice. It moved along at a good pace, with enough detail to familiarise the reader to the characters, but not in a prolongued way. I enjoyed reading the story, and enjoyed the way chapters jumped back and forth in time. It was well-written and interesting, I would recommend this book to others. By Michelle

"Meet Mr. Mulliner" by PG Wodehouse - January 2014

By now, we were on our fourth Wodehouse book, and for most of us there was relief that we were moving onto another author. The phrase "one trick pony" was used to describe the impression that all the books were the same story told over and over with slight variation and several people said they had been unable to finish the book. We are uncomfortable with his class based settings and his casual racism and misogyny. Interestingly, for others Meeting Mr Mulliner had been a case of saving the best for last. At the risk of sounding heretical it was even said that this book could be enjoyed because there was no Jeeves!

Once we started to talk about the stories the Wodehouse weariness dissipated. While laughing at the vision of a bishop and a headmaster off their heads on a large dose of "Buck-U-Uppo", we reflected on the casual way drugs and alcohol are used by Wodehouse characters. No one gets into trouble for it, the behaviour is completely accepted. This is in stark contrast to present day media interest in the behaviours of our celebrities.

On the cover of the edition we read there is a quote by Christopher Hitchens: "P.G. Wodehouse is the gold standard of English wit.", and we were asked how we felt about that. First thoughts were that the statement was hyperbole, Wodehouse is enjoyable but hardly a genius. Yet as we thought about it we realised just how rich his language is and how wonderfully visual his writing is. Add to that how enduring his characters are; Jeeves has passed into the vernacular and everyone knows who he is even if they have never heard of P.G. Wodehouse. We began to understand why he is so revered and loved by many. We are however pleased to be moving on to another author!

"Uncle Fred in the Springtime" by PG Wodehouse - December 2013

For our third Wodehouse book, Clapton library's reading group read Uncle Fred in the Springtime:

By now, blasphemous as it may sound, we were in danger of suffering a touch of Wodehouse fatigue! Most members made some comment to the effect of: "Seems like we've been here before..." when we started reading the book. Here's another set of love-tussles and other aristocratic "problems" to be sorted out with a clever/idiotic scheme by the hapless hero. Only this time, the main character, Pongo Twistleton, hasn't got the Bertie Wooster charm, or his optimistic wit, nor does he deliver the same sardonic exchanges with his counterpart Uncle Fred, as Bertie does with Jeeves.

Nobody liked Pongo, we thought he was just a pessimistic bore. However, luckily there was Uncle Fred, the real character of the story, he delivered where Pongo flopped! Some of us even admitted to falling a little bit in love with him. He sparkles, throwing himself with gusto into each chaotic scenario he encounters, or rather: helps create. And with his help, by the middle of the book the usual wit and the twists and turns of the brilliantly structured plot won us back round to admiring Wodehouse's craft.

Apart from Uncle Fred, we felt that a couple of the characters could have been expanded upon a bit more; all of us admitted to getting confused with the cast of the book, and were then relieved that we weren't the only ones thrown by all the eccentric uncles and clueless nephews. Which of the uncles threw the eggs? Which one's got the pig? And while we're mentioning the pig - why couldn't the pig owner just say to his friend, "Excuse me, but I'd really like to keep my pig"? What unwritten rules of politeness prohibit him from standing his ground over his own property? Also, why are there never any mothers or fathers in Wodehouse's books? It teems with aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, but parents are mostly absent. We agreed that there's something intrinsically funny about aunts and uncles, but why?

We were also interested in how Wodehouse introduces the first "common", non-aristocratic character in Mustard Pott. We all enjoyed the impromptu betting shop he creates during a pub breakfast. All in all, a very enjoyable read, guaranteed to lift you up. We had one issue regarding these newly published editions that our entire group agreed on: It would be helpful to have a blurb on the back of the book that actually tells you which series (i.e. Jeeves and Wooster, or Blandings Castle) and which particular book you're holding in your hands. Even at the back of the books, where Wodehouse's publications are listed, they aren't listed in chronological order. It would be helpful to have a newly published book and a bit of a Wodehouse guide all in one! By Cordula

"Joy in the Morning" by PG Wodehouse - November 2013

Two of our members collected the group's thoughts about "Joy in the Morning":

Lydia: We agreed that we found Bertie was more well-rounded as a character in this book. He is also more able to solve his own problems without too much help from Jeeves. He successfully avoids marriage to Florence and avoids being sent to prison as a consequence of stealing Stilton Cheesewright's police uniform in order to attend the fancy dress ball. Names of places such as Steeple Bumpleigh and East Wibley add to the satirical nature of the book.

The colourful character of Uncle Percy gives dramatic tension to the story and there are amusing incidents such as his meeting with the American business man J. Chichester Clam in the potting shed, a most unlikely place for striking a huge financial deal. The young boy Edwin adds some amusing incidents such as burning down the cottage by accident and putting a porcupine in Bertie's bed.

The story is rather drawn out in parts and it is not until the end of the book that Bertie is finally spared marriage to Florence. The book ends on a high note as Bertie's world is again set right as the birds sing again and the sun shines down on him. It is an entertaining and amusing book and is easily readable.

Cordula: I enjoyed that the plot wasn't told in hindsight as much, but was more directly experienced. What I enjoyed most were the endless twists and turns of the plot points, big and small ones alike, that I couldn't foresee. At one point during the middle of the book I was in danger of getting a trifle bored, because I had a Right Ho, Jeeves deja-vu experience; I felt we'd witnessed Bertie make that silly assumption here and finagle this love-merry-go-round there and put his foot in it everywhere, before. But then Joy in the Morning gathered its speed and surprised me on pretty much every page, pulling my expectations about, which was such good fun. I've since started reading Wodehouse's Berlin Broadcasts, on the Wodehouse Society website, and am fast becoming a PGW convert.

"Right Ho, Jeeves!" by PG Wodehouse - October 2013

Our first Blog Post ever! This is what started it all off: The Reading Agency supplied our Reading Group in Clapton Library, Hackney, with 4 free sets of PG Wodehouse books - in return they asked us to write a short blog post about what our group liked, disliked, and dissected about them. We got a surprise book every month. It all started with this one, "Right Ho, Jeeves!". When the blog project finished, our group had been bitten by the bug... and we decided to continue blogging about the books we read each month.

Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy sharing our thoughts!

Clapton's Reading Group definitely had a consensus about Right Ho, Jeeves: Laugh-out-loud funny. Only one member had previously read some Wodehouse, and everyone who hadn't was immensely glad to have been introduced to the playful language and extraordinary wit. Some of the best-loved scenes were Bertie Wooster's telegram exchange with his straight-talking aunt, being chased by his friend Tuppy Glossop round and round a garden bench, and playing with his rubber ducky in the bath; Jeeves's sparsely worded, sardonic wit (he really just needs one word - "Sir?" - to send Bertie into an indignant fit) and, of course, the climactic and hilarious prize-giving speech by the awkward, reclusive newt-aficionado, Augustus "Gussie" Fink-Nottle (or Spink-Bottle, as Bertie's aunt refers to him). In that last scene, Wodehouse gets the balance just right as Gussie veers perfectly between drunkenly slurring insults at everyone, but also staying restrained enough not to go over the top into a slapstick routine. A thoroughly enjoyable read! We also talked about the wider political and social circumstances Wodehouse was writing in, and wondered if his light-hearted novels were making a point of providing comic relief in desperate times, or whether he was genuinely ignorant about the 1920s Depression or the impending Nazi rule in the 1930s. Was Wodehouse aware how ridiculous and out of touch with reality his aristocratic characters were, or was he merely one of them, reporting from within? Whichever his thoughts, all of us in the group just savoured the perfectly crafted screwball comedy, and the outstanding use of language. By Cordula

Previous to the Wodehouse Project, we reveiwed:

"Five Days" by Douglas Kennedy:
"I enjoyed the book. I recognised a lot of situations and feelings. I think it is very well written."

"An easy read, but I wasn't convinced by the characters. I was profoundly irritated by the list of synonyms and didn't believe in the conversations. The match-up of personal stories was also incredible. However, the ending had some credibility. I expected more, given his reputation. I'd only recommend this to others as a beach read."

" Cleverly composed and fluently written. Easily read but never boring. It clearly illustrates the compassion and deeply thorough nature of the main character in both her job as a radiologist and as a mother. This insigth into her life brings her through relationships as an informed survivor; where some other characters falter. I'd recommend this book to others as a good train/tube/bedtime read, not too demanding, but with enough "love story" grip to keep reading. The end is assuringly informative."

"I enjoyed this book. I liked the way that it did not have a standard "happy ending". And I thought the author managed to write from a female perspective in a sympathetic way. I'd recommend this book as a gentle and thought-provoking read."

"I have some good and some not so good to say about the book. I was hooked on the story, which is of course what you want from any book, but at the same time I was often taken out of the story and left rolling my eyes - at the synonyms for example, and also at the overly matched-up parallel stories of the two main characters! She has a difficult son, he has a difficult son. She lost the love of her young life, he did too. It was a bit too much. Also, the main character's children seem to come through all the family difficulties with a bit too much ease, understanding, and a good relationship with their mother, which seemed a bit rose-tinted. However, the ending, the way she deals with her problems and comes through them, was very instructive for anyone suffering heartache or mild depression, I thought! And as I said, the book kept me hooked, so he obviously did something right. Not a literary gem, but I would recommend it as an easy read."

"Dreamz from the Endz" by Faiza Guene:
I would never have selected this book as a library book, but I am glad that I read it. The language irritated me as my working life was spent trying to get East End children to use standard English as well as non-standard. I'm afraid that I wasn't really interested in Ahleme or the other characters that much. They seemed very two-dimensional, but I did like the fact that the author did not portray Algeria as good and France bad. She was more sophisticated than that.