Thursday, 10 December 2015

"At Home: A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson - December 2015

In "At Home", Bill Bryson takes his readers on a tour of his Victorian, ex-vicarage, Norfolk home. Taking them from room to room, readers learned about the history of the specific room they found themselves in, and the everyday items within it. The reading of any random chapter revealed the depth and width of research that the author had undertaken, which he offered readers in a clear, often amusing and never patronising way: Bill Bryson wears his knowledge lightly, but transmits it in an entertaining style.

Particularly enjoyed was the way that the author seemed to, in an Eddie Izzard manner, “wander off-theme”. In the chapter headed The Passage, one learned that by “the early twentieth century, 10 per cent of all British aristocrat marriages were to (wealthy) Americans”. Why should that snippet of information be there? There was a link and it was fun following it as it was learning the origins of certain words; read this book and one will learn, amongst a myriad of things, the origin of "curfew" (from "couvre-feu", covering up the fire for the night).

The reading group all agreed that this book was an interesting, informative and well written read. One member found the book fascinating and insightful on life and the way people lived it. Everyone enjoyed the book, even if a few found it rather long. This particular reader, however, could have had a larger helping of the book, so pleasurable and erudite did she find it.
By Jasmina

"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow - November 2015

This was a brilliant, exuberant book, stuffed to the gills with literary references and all sorts of knowledge. This wasn’t a light fluffy meal to digest quickly, this was like chomping on a nutrient-rich power bar that packs every element you need to survive. It took most members of the group weeks to read it, and it also wasn’t easy to read it for long periods of time, because you had to give your brain a rest!! Saul Bellow’s brain gives us this extraordinary collection of information, almost as if he was wordily chronicling every thought his great head churned out during a mental breakdown – on speed. He stayed witty and funny and with a twinkle in his eye throughout his sprawling story of Charlie Citrine (himself) trying to love, to live, to write, to be left alone, to be entertained, to live up to his ideals, to come to terms with his shortcomings; to cope with love, money, and the thought of death. It was a wonderful ride just to listen to the author seemingly randomly rambling on. (Of course it wasn't random at all). The story of Charlie Citrine’s life was almost incidental to his musings on eternal life, life after death, the love he feels for his girlfriend Renata and several other women, his soul, his attraction to unsavoury characters (Chicaco criminals, shady lawyers…), his admiration for his mentor Von Humboldt’s work – and his concern for his friend’s descent into poverty and madness. Bellow manages to pack so much into his book: critiquing and analysing of capitalism in America… sending up and dismantling religion, criminality, and American culture (in literary circles and otherwise) with his wit…

A couple of things stuck with members of our group: The lively description and sheer hilarity of Citrine’s dealing with the gangster Cantabile, who basically kidnaps Citrine, abuses and ridicules him, while Citrine seems to be willingly following his lead – out of curiosity and maybe boredom more than fear, it seems. Another scene was the casual brutality of a husband punching his wife at a party, suspecting her to cheat on him, without anybody at the party reacting to this.

We felt that Bellow’s characters were always slightly embellished, caricatured, to make a point, but always so wonderfully and lively described, that we couldn’t help be enchanted by them. A great literary feast.
By Cordula

Monday, 5 October 2015

"A Song from Dead Lips" by William Shaw - October 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency:

This first instalment of a trilogy of crime novels set in 1960's London with detectives Breen and Tozer had most of the reading group members pretty hooked. It was an easy read, and provided several social and political themes that were really interesting to debate. As a result, we didn't focus so much on the murder story, the 'whodunnit' aspect, but more on the novel's depiction of the racism, sexism, and the political and social norms of 1968's London as well as (later on in the novel) the contrast with life in the countryside.

It was so interesting to hear the group members' personal experiences of the times. People agreed that especially sexism was exactly as widespread and normative as the novel describes, with some saying it was usually more subtle, more pervasive, than the novel's dialogue suggested. The younger, female character, Tozer, is pretty blatantly verbally abused within the male-dominated police department, and gives as good as she gets; people remembered a slightly more unspoken (and less comical) enforcement of the social code at the times. We discussed how much attitudes have changed especially with regards to sexism, but also recalled instances of ignorance that are still observed today, for exqample police vans being called "Paddywaggons" even recently, without people realising that this is a remnant of a slight to Irish people. We discussed examples of sexism and people's personal observations then and now - one group member's father told her never to learn to type, because he feared that people would too quickly assume and expect her to take on secretarial duties. A member cited a -contemporary- report by people in the medical profession that stated that tea-making is still first and foremost expected from women within a group. But we also marvelled at the changes between then and now - people in the group vividly remembered TV programmes such as the Black Minstrel Show, and comedians such as Jim Davidson and Bernhard Manning being mainstream entertainment. We commented that the novel is set even before the Equal Pay Act came into force. People remembered social changes being driven by things like new magazines and TV programmes, eg. "The Bill", but also said that things like "The Bill" could also change people's attitudes to be more sexist rather than less, depicting women as much more "easy" than they had previously been allowed to be (or to be portrayed).

The racism experienced by the Irish detective Breen, and by the African family in the novel, was shocking in its accepted normality, and we agreed with the author on the depiction, and we enjoyed how strongly the author brought all of these aspects to the novel. Some members did remark that the dialogue wasn't always satisfying - a lot of characters and some places appear and disappear quickly in the plot, without contributing much atmosphere or interest, like the pathologist in the novel, and the Bagel cafe that Breen frequents. Was this planned by the author from the start, as he set up his trilogy? Some of the group members had gone straight on and read the second novel in the series, "A House of Knives", and did report that some characters and situations are indeed picked back up and treated to a bit more exposition. However, it did leave the first novel a bit frustrating. Also, the dialogue felt to some to be a bit more stuck in the 50's - again, was that deliberate, to show that in a lot of ways 1968 didn't touch the majority of England so much, but concentrated on a minority bubble of 20-somethings in London (of which Tozer is a part, but Breen is not)?

A member commented that Breen is a great new serial detective, as he's just a normal bloke, not an alcoholic, schizophrenic, or burdened with any other extraordinary character traits. We liked his quiet character, a bit apart from the rest of the blokes, trying to deal wiht his own normal-life tragedies. We enjoyed his partner Tozer a lot as well, as an incredibly fearless, outspoken female character who dares to be very direct with Breen and her superiors. We appreciated that she is a fresh breeze, a counterpoint to a musty and backwards system and way of thinking, but it did make her character act in some very stark, brazen ways (driving off in the car without informing her partner, for example) that seemed a bit improbable. But overall we really enjoyed the novel for its characters, its plot, but mostly the depiction of 1968 London society.
By Cordula

Monday, 7 September 2015

"All Together Now" by Gill Hornby - September 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency:

One member, who couldn't make it to the group, emailed her thoughts about "All Together Now", and it turned out that the rest of the group agreed with pretty much everything she had said! Here's JAsmina's email:

"I enjoyed the book in that it was a very easy, undemanding read. It didn't require any reflective thinking or real thought and, after some of the bleak views of humanity we have read, was life affirming.
I found it well written and, in parts, funny. My main "complaint" about the read was that it was totally predictable; one knew how the characters would "develop" at the beginning of the story. There were no real surprises, even though one got the feeling that the writer was trying to provide them - the death of Constance, for example. You knew that once Tracey's life had meaning (the choir) she would become less brittle & a nice person & the same with Jazzy. Bennett would also develop & have a role because of the choir and the reader knew, from the outset, that he and Tracey would end up together.
The book could be turned into one of those British feel good films like the No 1 Best Marigold Hotel (think that's its title), giving one a warm glow, whilst watching, but quickly forgotten.

A pleasant, gentle and easy read."

At our group meeting, we compared the plot of the novel to a Richard Curtis romantic comedy/drama movie, rather than the Marigold Hotel movie, but that was the only difference! We all had a very similar view of the novel. However, we picked out a lot of details that we did really like, for example the characters of Annie and BEnnett seemed very real and relatable; one member confessed that she is a bit of an Annie, always helping and sorting out everyone else at the expense of time for herself. We liked how Bennett came out of his shell. But we found most of the other characters very thinly drawn, and not very nicely treated - why does Jazzy (Jasmine) have to be slagged off so, only for dreaming of going on the X-Factor? Are Sue and Pat (the Statler and Waldorf of the novel, heckling and cackling menacingly from the sidelines) capable of anything but spite? IS it realistic that Squat and Curly regularly break into Tracey's flat to steal money out of her safe, but are still, underneath, perfectly lovely, trustworthy, wonderful boys?

So, the characters and plotlines were a bit thin, a bit romantic/unbelievable, and it was all tied up in a pretty bow in the end, with nary a loose end. Realism was left on the sidelines, and it made us not care very much what happened to most of the characters.

One member commented that the episodes / vignettes that the novel was comprised of might have worked better as short stories.

However, having said all that, we enjoyed a lot of the funny bits, laughing out loud at some of the dialogue, and were moved by Annie's plight, by her lovely reaction to the group losing the Choir contest, and the loveliness of them all coming together in the town square for a flashmob-singalong in the end, which apparently was something that Gill Hornby experienced herself, so we wondered if the power of that experience brought the novel into motion.

Friday, 14 August 2015

"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen - August 2015

The novel is advertised as a bestseller, has won several awards, and has been made into a movie with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and yet, somehow, none of us in the group had ever heard of "Water for Elephants", nor of Sara Gruen. It was a very pleasant discovery to read her book about Jacob Jankowski, a Polish-American vet in 1930's Great Depression - era USA, who loses his parents to a car accident just as he is about to sit his veterinary exams at Cornell University, and in his despair (and his money-lessness) jumps on a random train at night, which turns out to be a travelling circus. Here he establishes himself as a capable working hand and animal handler as well as a vet, falls in love with Marlena, the star of the horseshow, makes unlikely friends among the "roustabouts", circus performers, and most notably becomes the only friend of the circus's new attraction, a seemingly stubborn Elephant dame named Rosie, who everybody assumes is untrainable and dumb, until Jankowski discovers that she will listen to his commands if he says them to her in Polish.

All of this rousing, moving, nicely paced circus lore, based on Sara Gruen's research of the big and small travelling circus's of the era, is satisfyingly told from the perspective of present-day Jankowski, now 93 years old and holed up in a nursing home, where the patronising manner of the staff and the mental absence of many of its inmates drive him absolutely crazy, until a lovely and humane nurse, Rosemary, starts to actually listen to him and respect him. The story is thus told in a two-level way that worked very well, we all thought; it's nice to get his perspective as a 90 or 93-year-old (he can't quite remember which but points out that, actually, who cares about 3 years' difference at this stage?) as well as his experiences as a young man of falling in love with a married circus performer with an unpredictable, abusive, possibly mentally ill (definitely mentally unstable) husband August, navigating the brutality of every day life on the large scale, when he finds out about the uncompromising circus leader, Big Al, throwing people off the train at night when he can't pay them any longer ("redlighting"), and on the small scale, when he refuses to share his nursing home dinner table with a braggart who claims he carried water for elephants as a youngster in the circus. Old age Jacob has a fit at him ("You never carried any water for any elephants! Do you know how much an elephant drinks?") and Rosemary talks him back into joining the dinner table eventually, rather than eating alone. It was also nice to know from the beginning that our protagonist has a lovely long life with a wife, five children, and many grandchildren; even though these days they don't really engage with him all that much when visiting him.

When he finds out that Rosemary is leaving her job in his home, on the very day his relatives have forgotten whose turn it was to visit him and take him to the circus that has come into his town, present-day Jacob sneakily shuffles out of the home with his walker and makes it to the gates of the circus by himself. Here he eventually meets the manager, CHarlie, who invites him for a drink and listens to Jacob's recollections. Charlie ends up pretending to the police that Jacob is his father, not the runaway that the nursing home is looking for, and promises to take Jacob on to man the ticket booth, which makes for a lovely ending.

Of course the woman he ends up marrying is MArlena, star attraction, and the drama of how she battles her abusive husband, August, is the centre of the book, and very well written; we were gripped by the story, the quirky and dramatic turns alike, the characters were believable and entertaining, and we really liked finding out details of what goes on behind the scenes at a travelling circus under duress. It was interesting to find out that when one circus goes bankrupt, the animals, performers, and workers get picked up for low prices by other circusses coming to raid the leftovers; the brutality of dealing with desperate times ("redlighting", beatings, not paying the roustabouts for weeks at a time) and just the normal day to day life of a circus - having to put sick animals down, feeding lions, clubbing the men on the head that are trying to sneak underneath the striptease-tent without paying. We enjoyed the warily budding friendship between Jacob and Walter the performing dwarf who's forced to share his wagon with Jacob, and with Camel, who falls ill with Jake Leg from illegal alcohol, and most of all with Rosie the elephant, who Jacob has to save again and again from the violent outbursts of Marlena's husband. We laughed at old Jacob declaring to the reader that aging is definitely not for sissies. If there was one complaint, we thought that maybe Marlena didn't really possess much of a personality beyond caring for the animals; however, she had to deal with an unpredictably brutal husband, so we gave the author the benefit of the doubt of maybe sketching Marlena in a very restrained, subdued way on purpose. All in all we really enjoyed the ride.
By Cordula

Friday, 3 July 2015

"Labyrinth" by Kate Mosse - July 2015

One reader sent her comments in per email because she couldn't make it to the group, and the rest of the group totally agreed with it when I read it out loud:

"My initial reaction, from the first page or two, was oh, no, chick lit disguised as something else. I was immediately irritated by the need to describe what Alice was wearing. I have never read any Kate Mosse before and knew that she was a founder of the Orange Prize for fiction, so I expected something more.

It seems clear that she wrote this as entertainment rather than literature. It is a real summer holiday read. The story has you turning the pages but you never stop to marvel at a wonderful turn of phrase or clever metaphor. The only descriptions that worked for me were of the landscape. I think she got that right and it shows that she both knows and loves the area.

I found the history interesting and I did learn things; the origins of the Inquisition for example. It seems that she did her research and there were frequent fascinating details about the way of life in the thirteenth century Pays d’Oc. I liked the fact that in both stories the hero and the villain were women. I don’t think either story really worked as a mystery but there was enough tension to keep me reading.

One thing that really annoyed me was the lack of explanation about Grace Tanner. Why was she interested in Alice? Why did she leave everything to her? How did she know Baillard? It is all too coincidental that she ends up living near Carcassonne and has a niece she never meets who has the same name as the person Baillard has been fixated by.

I don’t have a feeling for whether Mosse is a good writer. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I wish she had written her story as a literary novel rather than a beach read. I would need a recommendation from someone whose judgement I trusted to try another book by Kate Mosse."

We discussed the parallel stories of Alais' and Alice's worlds, that were a bit flatly comparable one-to-one (Will in 2005 was Guilhem in 1207, etc), and the sheer idiocy of giving the villains dark hair and making the heroines blonde... there wasn't much intrigue or difficulty, or beauty of prose, to really engage the mind enough, it was more of an easy evening (beach) read. The group members were interested in the history, and didnt' necessarily mind the easy-to-read quality of the book, despite the length, but it didn't have us yearning for more or appreciating the book on a literary level.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

"The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman - June 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency:

Well the first thing one member of our group said to me was: "Read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban instead. He does it much better!", so that gives you an idea how this book was perceived in our group! Our judgements and opinions veered wildly, from excellent to terrible, and sometimes both judgements even came from the same person! Everybody had something strong to say about this novel. Most of us agreed that the language Newman employs is something special, and liked or even loved the fabulous poetic quality, and loved "decoding" the patois Ice Cream speaks in. A couple of us were in awe of the sing-song quality, dream-like inventiveness and beauty of the prose. One person commented that it was hard to get into it, however, which then made most others agree: When leaving the book for a couple of days and then going back to it, it was hard to readjust, get your head back into the space. Also, one member said "It's just a bit of French thrown in", so not everyone found it that inventive!

After mostly complimenting the language though, the real "thrashing" of the novel started. Everyone had something bad to say about the plot (with the exception of myself), first and foremost that it was going on for far too long. Only 3 out of 8 members managed to finish the book. But I believe the strongest complaint (which I can't totally disagree with) was that later on in the novel, when the group travels to New York and then Washington, the reader has to suspend far too much disbelief in order to go along with the notion that cities of teenage children, 80 years after the total breakdown of society, are able to maintain a well functioning industrial and agricultural society: They keep factories running, they drive cars (how do they source petrol? Petrol goes bad after a couple of years), they have a quasi-vatican religious society fully running, they maintain working elevators, and they perform abortions and even fit the heroine of the novel with an IUD coil.

The ending of the book also seemed weird to us: After a novel of such length, the author just dispenses with the rest of the story in one short paragraph, sending Ice Cream off to Europe to find the cure for the (bio-engineered?) sickness they all die from. That's it!

I was personally able to enjoy the fiction without feeling too disturbed by these logical discrepancies, but they really bothered the other group members, and I totally see why - it's pretty ludicrous, and would never fly in a TV series for example. (We did all agree that if those problems were fixed, it would make a good movie or even a series).

Now I was rather hoping, especially as I absolutely loved this novel, that we would get to discuss the tragic stories that befall the heroine Ice Cream Star, the politics of dystopia, her views on relationships / sex / homosexuality, her friendship with Crow and her relationships with El Mayor and New King Mamadou (it's pretty much Mr. Big - Aidan - Stanford Blatch I thought at one point, but thought it benevolently ;-), what the novel would look like from the perspecitive of Pasha (and all the other adult characters, i.e. the Russians) in comparison to this teenage-centered view, what everyone thought of the muslim slave camp, and much much more... but because most people hadn't even got halfway through the book, we never got all that far with those issues! (We spent the last half hour very happily planning visits to the yearly Stoke Newington Literary Festival instead: ) Although one more good thing that a couple of members mentioned: It was pretty enjoyable how thoroughly the author takes down religion, especially catholic religion, later on in the book when the heroine is made into "the new virgin Mary". There is a quote I loved; when Ice Cream Star has the concept of immaculate conception explained to her she sums it up thus: "Papa Joseph standing by, got no sex to do". Funny!

But overall, not a great endorsement by the group except by myself... but since I'm the one writing this, I'll say it as loud as I can: I loved this book, I think the writing and the story and the attitudes displayed were extraordinary, I sailed dream-like through this book, marvelling at the beauty; and its language, characters, and stories stayed and still stay with me now. I can't recommend it enough.

So... mixed reviews, is probably the shortest way to put it?
By Cordula

"Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch - May 2015

Every year in April, our group takes part in the London-wide "CityRead London" initiative! Our review of Rivers of London to come very soon.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

"Arthur & George" by Julian Barnes - April 2015

Although levels of interest in the content of the book differed in the group, everyone agreed that it was well written. Part of the blurb on the back cover stated that this “was perhaps his (Barnes’) best book yet”. Members who had read other texts by the author did not agree.

One member felt that the author was constrained by the factual subject matter, but two others felt that the book only became really interesting with George’s court case, which both agreed was riveting. Whilst most of the group liked the book, two members loved it and felt that Barnes had been very successful in describing and developing characters, minor as well as major, in particular, a very sympathetic development of Maud, sister to George and Jean Leckie, Conan Doyle’s second wife.

Readers found that the author was extremely able in building up atmosphere and revealing the intricacies and prejudices of the British class system. Throughout the book George, of Anglo Indian heritage, refused to see the attacks on himself, and his family, as having anything to do with race. It was Conan Doyle who was convinced that this was the case, but his own attitude to race is shown to be less than liberal

It was felt that Barnes’ main success had been in not writing a hagiography of Conan Doyle, but rather had shown him to be a decent but deeply flawed man; as much attention had been placed on the development of character of the unknown George Edalji as on the very famous Conan Doyle. Through George’s often witty unspoken thoughts, Conan Doyle was shown to be no Sherlock Holmes. However, Conan Doyle’s determination, along with that of others, to get justice for the innocent George Edalji was partially responsible for the establishment of the British Court of Criminal Appeal. Julian Barnes’ book, based on authentic material, revealed why that creation was vitally important.
By Jasmina

Monday, 23 March 2015

"The Untouchable" by John Banville - March 2015

John Banville - The Untouchable – Review from Clapton Book Club, Hackney.

§ A surprising amount of wit was utilised throughout the book, built mostly out of irony and sarcasm and often self deprecating in style. Was Victor self conscious about his writing? The group was divided in opinion on this, and around several other subjects; some believed Victor to be overly in love with language as if to say “look how clever I am”. On the other hand one member of the group exclaimed how alike the language was in the book to those from Oxford and Cambridge at that time, and how clever of him to style the change in prose and language throughout the periods so eloquently. Words the group particularly enjoyed – embonpoint, bedizened.

§ It was suggested that half a page descriptions of people and the in-depth pictures created were often too detailed and distracting from the story i.e. down to the white and blue smoke and light, was just too much. When we consider the important point that Victors first and real love is painting, should this surprise us? It is considered by several in the book club to be a rather clever approach as it is Victor painting a picture with each scene and reflects the frustrated artist within him. The descriptions left you no mould to develop your own imaginative take on characters, they were prescribed to you in detail. It was questioned if this was done on purpose or not.

§ One member of the group found some of the language particularly unsavoury and often catty prejudiced comments such as that on page 384 in regard to Hackney did not add anything to the book, whereas others found this part of Victor’s charm and it amused them greatly. This tends to sum up the majority of conversations involving Victor during our meeting, he was like Marmite – you either love or hate him!

§ The book is not one you can skim read, it requires dedication and concentration and it was felt that it reflected the changes in Britain occurring during the periods successfully. It was noted that those of a younger generation could often find it harder to digest and, rather than making comparisons to the real life story it was based on, read it more at face value as a novel. Comparisons included Boy Bannister as Burgess, Querell based on Graham Greene and Victor as Anthony Blunt.

§ The writing style, when compared, is similar to that of author William Boyd. The way Victor addresses points in his head worked as a reflection to bounce ideas off, and made it easier to follow through the lightness stemming from this. Most felt it was cleverly done and enjoyed this tactic employed by Banville.

§ The group discussed the homosexuality alluded to throughout the book, it was very decadent and also touched on very similar stories in the news at the time. It was felt marriage was commonly a safe option during this era, due to the illegalities involving homosexuality. The group agreed on Victor marrying “Baby” as she was a substitute for his true love Nick, her brother. Often parallel stories of being a spy and being gay were told, as he compared it to acting all the time in life.

§ The family dynamic was interesting, with a brother with disabilities and clear class divisions within the family. Victor appears human at infrequent times, but only when with his own children and his relationships with his family does this really come into effect. Banville writes so intellectually about his life, but then includes humour with “he he” when Victor teases his son, and the comment “there’s always spies about, whoops!”.

§ One member felt that by telling you the plot in snippets i.e. Baby, I will marry her later, it was a rush to get to the next point covering this part of the story, and there wasn’t a need to tell you the plot that is coming as in some ways it spoilt the storytelling element.

§ Overall the book adds context to history and gives a very authentic coverage of the eras and the differences in society. It highlights the slapdash style of spying back in this era, whilst covering several other topics which were handled well such as sexuality, class and disability. It would make a great book for someone reading it to get a sense of history and Britain during this time but also makes a marvellous read for those who lived during this time and can relate to the real life counterparts described.
By Virginia

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

"The Shining" by Stephen King - February 2015

Only one person in the group had read any Stephen King before and the others had always avoided the “horror” genre so approached this book with some trepidation. The first surprise was how different the novel was to the well-known film version. The film was a straightforward horror movie with no back-story for the characters whereas reading the novel we discovered a psychological drama.
We admitted that some of us were biased and thought the novel would be dreadful but we were pleased to encounter “real” characters. One reader commented on how she enjoyed Dick Halloran’s Florida story – a wonderful vignette of a man who is disdainful of his bosses yet able to get on with his job and life.

We agreed that the drama builds very well at first and the depiction of Jack’s deterioration is absorbing and credible. However this is not maintained throughout and we are forced to start suspending disbelief. We felt that the device of the scrap book was not enough to explain the rapid change in Jack. Too many mystical elements are introduced and not joined together well enough. There is a sudden and, to our mind, unnecessary change from Jack wrestling with his internal demons to “possession” by external demons. We are no longer witnessing the sad decline of a man, rather the malign influence of the hotel itself.

The story made more sense before Wendy heard and saw ghosts. Up until that point all the strangeness was in Jack’s mind with Danny able to see it because of his ability to read minds. Once this change of tone occurred the story became less gripping and started to drag. The endless repetition of “take your medicine” was irritating. The ending was not believable, how did a badly wounded man get Danny and a badly wounded Wendy out of the hotel? We definitely felt it was a novel of two halves.

There was concern over the depiction of Halloran and the constant reference to his colour. There was no justification for the stereotypical portrait of the single black character. If the intention was to expose racism it back-fired.

The group felt that the depiction of Jack was a very sympathetic portrait of alcoholism showing real respect for those on the wagon. His fall from grace was well handled and I was a nice touch having an educated man, an academic, go through this rather than the usual poor manual worker.

We also discussed how real a character Jack’s mother was; would anyone put up with all the abuse she suffered at her husband’s hand? We agreed that it was a disturbingly accurate portrayal of domestic violence. This led to discussion of whether Jack had chosen Wendy because she was like his mother and the issues that Wendy had with her own mother. These relationships, Jack and Wendy’s marriage and the jealousy she felt when looking at her son and husband’s interaction all rang true. In summary we found Stephen King a far more skilled writer than we had given him credit for even if we weren’t happy with where he took The Shining.

Monday, 12 January 2015

"Butterflies in November" by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir - January 2015

This was yet another free bookset we won from The Reading Agency:

We had mixed reactions to reading this novel! It was hard to get into it for some members of the group. The characters (especially the narrator, she's never named) react in such an unemotional, detached, slightly off-topic way to each major event that happens, that it's difficult to form any emotional bond to them. We thought that they were all over the place, not reacting in any way that you would expect them to; therefore it was hard to start caring for them. Some of us felt that we were waiting for the action, or the emotional connection, to begin, only to find three quarters into the book that it never does. However, we had very positive reactions as well: the quirkiness of the characters' responses is intriguing, and does propel the story forward in unusual ways, it's just maybe not as successfully done as we would have liked! This might be due to the translation (or the fact that it is translated at all). Or is it an Icelandic thing? Members of the group who've been to Iceland definitely attested to a quirkiness of character, inspired by the quirkiness of landscape, light and dark, and isolation, perhaps! It's interesting that the jaggedness / dottiness / flitting about of the story and the characters' actions and reactions mimic the flight of a butterfly; butterflies pop up every once in a while throughout the story.

One thing that we all agreed on was that the landscape of Iceland is very richly and satisfyingly portrayed, even though the entire journey the protagonists undertake would, in fact, take place in utter darkness (a bit of poetic licence there, as admitted by the author herself in an interview); however, that didn't mar our enjoyment of the author's descriptions. We thought that the novel might be designed to give a snapshot of Iceland itself, rather than an individual character; both because we never learn the protagonist's name, and also because her actions are so off the well-trodden path, a bit like Iceland itself maybe. She's a bit icy, she's all about survival, practical and matter-of-fact, but a little bit lost in her own world as well. She has a fanciful counterpoint in Audur, her best friend (and pretty much the wackiest character in this book), maybe as a warm, chaotic, colourful energy to balance the heroine's slightly robotic demeanour. However, every person in the book acts so wackily, that we thought that if anybody's only information on Iceland was this novel, they'd get a very weird impression of its citizens!

We really appreciated the backstory in the novel; the dream-like memories and reflections that interject the plot, written in italics, reveal her having a son while she's a teenager, and having to give him up for adoption (we never find out how/why). She meets him later, during her road-trip, and she does want to know about him, but still reacts with her typical stone-cold manner; she's being told by the boy's father to let sleeping dogs lie, and we read no more about it.

Another wonderful thing was the character of Tumi, the partially deaf four-year-old that the narrator goes on her trip with, and their evolving relationship; we did enjoy him and her together. We also talked about feminism and male and female roles in the novel; how accepting the women seem to men's dominating and dependent behaviour throughout, and how it goes uncommented by everyone! A novel to stimulate a lot of debate, for sure.
By Cordula

One member of our group couldn't make it to the meeting, but emailed her comments to me. Here they are:

- Choosing the boy to have hearing and sight impediments and not be a "normal" boy was a very interesting concept given the minority of children being affected by both. It added dimensions to each part of the story that changed the focus completely, I felt it really opened up what can be a difficult and sensitive subject when it comes to writing about it and the author really conveyed this very well.

- The descriptions of Iceland were so vivid to me, having been there I could really imagine the roads as they drove across the vast expanses and the volcanic barren terrain, for those who haven't been some descriptions may have seemed quite uninteresting or unimaginative - but having been amongst it I could really feel it.

- I found the plot a bit wishy washy in places, it was obvious what they were doing, where they were going etc, but there was no big song or dance about anything that happened along the way - it was almost natural to have a bird of prey in a box as it was to hit a sheep, or buy chocolate or petrol, or win the lottery, or end a relationship. Maybe this was down to the translation, I felt it lacked highs and lows and emotions which I wanted to feel when reading the story and these things happening.

- The ending was a real disappointment to me, I felt we were mid novel and I wasn't prepared for it to be over. It did have me hooked and I wanted more from it, but I was left feeling confused and wondering. Maybe this was the aim, or maybe this was the translation I dont know but I felt we got the first half of the story and wanted the rest...maybe part two will come soon!

- Adding in some dimensions like the side track when hitting the sheep, the bird of prey being with the vet, never finding out her name (i dont think we did?) the choir following them around and the butterflies were all very quirky; they made no sense yet the story needed them and I found the author's imagination incredible and in the way they linked into the tale.

- This is exactly the sort of book I would choose to read, it made me laugh, question, made me re-read sections and challenged my thinking about a lot of subjects from winning the lottery, to random encounters, to eating roadkill - it successfully covered a lot of unusual thought provoking items.

- As I write about this I recall so many amusing parts of the story, but it left me with both a feeling of having read a wonderful book and frustration at not getting as much out of it as I would have liked.

December 2014 - "I Was Here" by Gayle Forman - blog post to come

We really enjoyed Gayle Forman's "I Was Here", a Young Adult novel about a 18-year old girl coping with the suicide of her best friend. Review to come soon!

This novel was given to us for free by The Reading Agency: