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: http://readinggroups.org./

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: http://www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com/ ) 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.