Category Archives: Book Group

Happy Easter

I thought that the day slap bang between Good Friday and Easter Sunday might just be the perfect time to schedule a post wishing you all a very Happy Easter wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

I myself have no idea what I will be doing, though not being religious in the traditional sense I am sure I will be turning to my own mini-religion which is of course books and two in particular… My latest book group choices. Strangely enough both of the choices this month happen to have been my own and am am dangerously behind in reading both of them, typical. Thank goodness for a long bank holiday weekend (we are having two long four day weekends on the trott in the UK) which seems the perfect time to be tucking into both ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood and ‘The Eyre Affair’ by Jasper Fforde, and possibly tucking into some chocolate too.

Wherever you are, whatever your doing and whatever your reading (and do feel free to let me know what all these three might entail) I hope you have a lovely time be you visiting church, spending time with loved ones, eating chocolate, having an adventure, reading or simply having a nice rest!

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

When ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell was chosen for book group I had two reactions. The initial was an inward groan as I had read ‘Cloud Atlas’ and sort of hated it (it was pre-blogging but I found it confusing, cold and rather patronising – I know lots and lots of people have loved it) which annoyed me because the cover was so lovely. The second reaction I had was ‘ooh this could be a challenge’ and I found myself both strangely pleased at that. So which was it? Well, oddly it was both.

Upon finishing ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ I had four reactions. I thought both ‘wow the author can write’ along with ‘blimey it’s rather formulaic, a little pretentious and boy is David Mitchell letting you know how much research he has done ‘. I also came away thinking ‘that was a challenging and thought provoking read’ along with a sense of ‘thank goodness that’s over’. Completely polar feelings in one book I find rather fascinating, but what was it about it that made me feel like that? Well the story, or stories, was the first factor.

The book is set in several parts. If you were to only read the first chapter of this novel, and indeed the first part of the book, before buying it you would either feel disgusted or completely gripped as the scene of a traumatic and complicated birth is graphically played out over the first few pages. However from that point the novel suddenly changes to the tale of Jacob de Zoet who has freshly docked on the floating village of Dejima, just off the harbour of Nagasaki, in 1799. Here as a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company, trading basically, he meets a young midwife, Orito Aibagawa, who he rather falls in love with.

Along with all this Mitchell creates a huge cast of characters (over 100) and the way of life at the time but I couldn’t say, despite how descriptive he is – and he really is, that the characters, other than Orito, were vivid and nor could I say that I felt the atmosphere of the place. It felt a little cold and one dimensional, so much was going on that I couldn’t quite focus and here Mitchell let me as a reader down as instead of allowing me to build some of the picture myself he explains so much in such detail I felt like his intellect and imagination was being forced down my throat and he didn’t trust me to use my own. That might seem harsh, but all is not lost quite yet.

If I am 100% honest had it not been a choice for my book group I would have given up on Jacob and his tale there and then. However I like to try and read a book group from cover to cover and thank goodness I did as part two was just incredible. It is Orito’s tale, after Jacob believes she has vanished, which sees her in a nunnery that is not all it appears to be at first and in many ways is some kind of religious cult which needs children to be born, how those children are produced and what for I will leave for anyone who chooses to give this book a whirl but I was left stunned by it and followed Orito the way you would follow a thriller, pages were speedily being turned. I also liked the feel that this was almost a homage from Mitchell to writing of the 16th and 17th century, it felt rather ‘Dracula’ meets ‘Castle of Otranto’ in some ways.

Sadly after part two we head back to the world of Jacob again of which I shall say no more other than the hard work you put in during part one of the book sort of pays off… sort off. I personally wish that David Mitchell had written ‘The Thousand Autumns of Orito Aibagawa’. Whilst all that Jacob de Zoet encounters is rather interesting in terms of history, it does start to feel like a text book, there are even pictures every now and again, and my imagination seemed to be penned in. Yet when I was with Orito the book came into its own, I was gripped and found her story fascinating.

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ has quite a lot going for it, and I am fairly sure that anyone who has read Mitchells previous books will have read it by now regardless and most likely loved it. For me it was a book of two halves. I am certainly glad I read it, I feel I challenged myself in terms of returning to an author I vowed I never would – but I am not convinced I will go through his back catalogue just yet, though at the same time I will be very interested to hear what he writes next. 6/10

Rather like ‘Brighton Rock’ though its not a book I instantly loved its definitely one that’s got me thinking about what I read and the way I read it – and of course what I look for in a book. I don’t always want comfy, I need a book like this to give me a jolt sometimes. I am sure lots of people have read and adored this book and I would love to hear from you if you did and of course if you didn’t. It received a mixed bag at book group with one member loving it and really getting passionate about it (and who I am sure would love any more Mitchell recommendations you might have), a few of us having quite liked it and several other members who couldn’t get through the first part. So a mixed bag, but sometimes those books make the best book group books don’t they?

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Filed under Book Group, David Mitchell, Review, Sceptre Publishing

A Great First Book Group Choice…

Only a quick post today but one that I am hoping that you will help me with. Not that I need to question that, you are all always really helpful! I’m looking for recommendations of books that would make the perfect first book group choice for the first discussion meeting.

Though I’ve joined a lovely book group in Levenshulme (we are actually meeting tomorrow to discuss ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell – thoughts soon) the house mate of one of my friends, who also wants in too which is ace, in the centre of Manchester has asked if I’d like to set up a book group with them and others in the city centre of town. Well how could I say no? I’m not leaving the Levenshulme one, I think I can manage with two and it is a great way of making more new friends and reading more diversely.

I’ve been asked to come up with the first title and I’m a bit stuck. You see when I cofounded The Riverside Readers we had a meeting where we discussed our favourite books, it seems in this group they just want to get a title and get cracking! All good with me but what oh what to choose?

I think something that is a mix of genres, is page turning and also wonderfully written, something not too new and not too old would be good, but are there any books out there which encompass all these things? Help!

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Reading With Authors

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was hankering for the Not The TV Book Group to get back together for another whirl this year. Due to schedules, reading resolutions and all sorts of bits and bobs it looks like unfortunately it wont be happening in 2011, but maybe in 2012, we will see. There was mention of me carrying on with some new hosts but that didn’t seem right and so I went away, thought about it and have come up with something a little bit different…

I do love having a new project to put my energies into, I don’t know if you have spotted that yet? Anyway ‘Reading With Authors’ is only in the planning stages (and its only the working title for now), though I have the first guest author and book in the bag already, but its going to be something a little bit different over the early summer months of 2011 where myself and a guest author will both be discussing a book on the blog but not one that the author has written, and probably not even one they have read before. As you read this some emails will be winging themselves out to some more authors asking if they will be joining in and an official list of the authors, the books and the dates will be coming soon.

I am mulling over the idea of authors reading books which aren’t in their genre for example a crime writer reading something almost the polar opposite of their genre and vice versa. Like I said its all in the planning stages which means of course you can help shape it with your ideas. Are there any authors you would love to see discussing the books? Are there any titles that you would particularly like to see discussed that would make fantastic book group choices and have gone under the radar? How often would you like the book group to be? I am thinking of just hosting five, maybe six, to start off with and am thinking maybe every two or three weeks? Hmmm. Any other thoughts and ideas are most welcome so if you have some suggestions do make them known.

Oh and of course if you are an author or someone who knows and author who might like to do this then do email me and get in touch, or if you can make lovely badges for a new logo, ha.

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Simon’s Bookish Bits #29

As a change is as good as a rest I thought I would do one of my recently more random ‘Bookish Bits’ posts. I’ve a few little asks of you, when don’t I, all based around book groups including ideas for a great book group read, the TV Book Group and possible return of the Not The TV Book Group, oh plus a little health update and to remind you to let me know your thoughts on some books that I must get my mitts on in 2011.

First up for discussion today is Book Group choices. I am sure I have mentioned ‘ideal book group books before’ but now I call upon you for recommendations. Tonight I will be meeting up with my new book group for the second time to discuss Sara Gruen’s ‘Water For Elephants’ (which I will be discussing on the blog tomorrow) and afterwards I think I have to come up with a novel that’s my suggestion for a future read. Eek! I mean it’s not like I don’t have enough choice, and ideally I will be nominating something which is currently languishing on Mount TBR, it’s just when you put forward your first choice it says a lot about you. Well, that’s what I think anyway. So what do you suggest, what will cause great discussion without being something too light or too heavy?

Last night saw the return of The TV Book Group who discussed ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue. I was very sad not to see Laila on the opening show as I do have a soft spot for her, I think she really thinks it all through and quietly gets her point across. I did think Meera Syal was an absolutely brilliant addition to the show, really down to earth and real and quite happy to argue the case. You can see all the choices on their website, let me know if you have read any of them already and what you thought, and next week they will be discussing another of my favourite reads from last year The Long Song’ by Andrea Levy.

Now along those lines… I have had a few emails and enquiries in the flesh wondering whether in 2011 we might be repeating ‘Not The TV Book Group’. I would love, love, love to do it again and so have sent the feelers out via email to my lovely co-judges from last year to see their thoughts. I am hoping they all say yes, no pressure of course ha, ha, ha! Would you like to see the ‘Not The TV Book Group’ return in 2011? What sort of titles would you like to see? Unknown new or older books, books from certain eras, debut novels? Let me know your thoughts.

Oh and a little note on my health while we are catching up, no real news because it seems all my records from London have gone walkies and so now I am going through the whole rigmarole again. Back to the tests and the hospital visits and all that palaver… eurgh, let’s go back to discussing books shall we?

So to recap… which books on Mount TBR do you think would make great book group reads and why? Or what other books would you recommend from your own book group experience? What were your thoughts on the new series of The TV Book Club and would you like to see Not The TV Book Group return and with what? Oh and I almost forgot… any thoughts as to books I simply must try and devour in 2011, pop here if so!

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Filed under Book Group, Not The TV Book Group, Simon's Bookish Bits

New Book Group Nerves

I’ve not been properly up north three days and yet I have already managed to get myself into a book group. The lovely author Paul Magrs, who I now live about ten minutes away from on the bus, and a few of the local people of Levenshulme meet once a month to discuss a wide variety of books and so I have elbowed my way in I was kindly invited to join… but I am nervous.

It’s not about the book, which this month is Susan Hill’s latest ghostly tale ‘The Small Hand’ (which I have already devoured and posted about) which I am sure will give us plenty to talk about. It’s more the fact it’s new… and new people. You see I am not so good with new people. I tend to go really quiet and start looking very uncomfortable, accidently start sneering a little bit (its fear not arrogance) or I rabbit on and on talking absolute gibberish. The later will certainly not do because Susan Hill’s book is worthy of far more than gibberish when discussed and the other two aren’t going to leave a great impression on a group whom I want to make acquaintances and get invited back to meet next month.

I could worry about it endlessly however I will be taking my two year old twin cousins to their playgroup Christmas Party (heavens above) and then off to meet my new doctor before heading off again to look at some rather swanky flats, if I do say so myself, in the afternoon so hopefully that will take my mind off it. I could also maybe spend some time reading the book again, is it cheating if I don’t? Any tips on how or how not to make a lasting impression with this new bookish group?

I will report back in due course and let you know how I do or don’t get on… eek!

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The Prose Practice – Books for Book Groups

I am currently ‘oop north’ in Manchester and have been joined at my aunties by the lovely Granny Savidge Reads (though she does prefer to be known as simply Gran) and last night she was asking me my advice on possible choices for one, of the three that she is a member of, book groups and their choices of reads next year.

They already have a list of possible options and the idea is that each member of the group chooses twelve of the titles from the list giving them points in order of preference (twelve being the maximum and working down) and the ones that get the most votes are the twelve they head for in 2011.

Naturally I thought that all of you would make a wonderful panel who could recommend a title of twelve from the list, rather than just me. So here without further ado, and in order of authors first name, is the list of the possible reads, I have crossed some out as Gran had already read them and didn’t fancy them again or just didn’t fancy end of – though I am sure she could be persuaded by you all…

  • The Children’s Book – A.S. Byatt
  • The Yacoubian Building – Alaa al Aswanny
  • La’s Orchestra Saves The World – Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Long Song – Andrea Levy
  • The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
  • The Card – Arnold Bennett
  • Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama
  • Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
  • Last Train From Liguria – Christine Dwyer Hickey
  • Short Stories – D.H. Lawrence
  • Death Sentence – David Lodge
  • Counting My Chickens – Deborah Devonshire
  • These Foolish Things – Deborah Moggach
  • The Good Soldier – Ford Maddox Ford
  • Girl in a Blue Dress – Gaynor Arnold
  • Adam Bede – George Elliott
  • Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson
  • Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
  • Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  • Family Romance – John Lancaster
  • Paradise Postponed – John Mortimer
  • The Plague of Doves – Louise Erdrich
  • An Education – Lynn Barber
  • The Red Queen – Margaret Drabble
  • The Memory Box – Margaret Forster
  • The Glassblower of Murano – Marina Fiorato
  • Florence Nightingale – Mark Bostridge
  • The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  • The Hamilton Case – Michelle De Krester
  • Memento Mori – Muriel Spark
  • The Wasted Vigil – Nadine Aslam
  • Great Fortunes – Olivia Manning
  • Border Crossing – Pat Barker
  • Peripheral Vision – Patricia Ferguson
  • The Law of Dreams – Peter Belling
  • Trespass – Rose Tremain
  • Sacred Hearts – Sarah Dunant
  • The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters
  • Engleby – Sebastian Faulks
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • The Beacon – Susan Hill
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • A Whispered Name – William Brodrick
  • The Believers – Zoe Heller

That’s quite a list isn’t it? I am sure you can understand why I thought opening this up to all of you would be much more helpful as I haven’t heard of half of the authors. Which is also an apology if therefore I have spelt some titles and authors wrongly, I am going by the spreadsheet Gran brought with her. I did recommend ‘The Little Stranger’ oddly as though I didn’t initially love it, it grew on me over time, I would have loved to have read it and been able to discuss the ending and what it all seemed to mean.

So which twelve would you pick and why? I know Gran will be popping by and checking, as will I as I have some of these on Mount TBR which I have been itching to get around too. Let us know, if you could suggest twelve in orderof preference and why that would be amazing…

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If On A Winters Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

I have been back in London for a few days this week before another little ‘procedure’ and my next return for some convalescing back up home this weekend, which coincides with my mother’s birthday. Whilst back I made sure I managed to get to The Riverside Readers book group for our discussion of ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ by Italo Calvino which was chosen by Anirban. I have to admit I felt a bit of a cheat because I hadn’t finished the book… because I had thrown it across the room and given up on it a few days before. So this isn’t a ‘review’ more a public exorcism of a book that started off with a ridiculous amount of promise and then swiftly became the bane of my reading life.

Italo Calvino’s ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ is claimed by many to be a ‘masterpiece’ and that always intrigues me with a book and makes me feel like maybe I should read it, apart from that I knew nothing of the author or his works. When I started the book I had high hopes, as I do with every book, and the quirky initial opening paragraphs of the book seemed to charm me…

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

I liked this starting point, it seemed playful and so I was gearing up for a really enjoyable read that would take me away. However after the initial brilliance of the opening chapter (and I do mean chapter) which is a rather wonderful set of pages about reading, it just went down hill for me. You see the plot is rather confusing. We follow ‘you’ a reader who buys a copy of Italo Calvino’s book ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ however there is something wrong with it after exchanging to for another copy he gets a completely different book, and again, and again each one in a differing genre style. We then get the first chapter of each of these books in alternating chapters… well I wont lie I was really, really confused by it all.

As we started to have scenes set such as a scene in a café where Calvino starts to analyse setting with things like ‘could this story all be in the café, is the outside world important, maybe we will find out, maybe we wont’ I just started to get really annoyed. I felt I was being patronised and that the writer was being rather smug, and that’s when I decided to throw it across the room. I found it mildly amusing after being so cross that in the initial chapter when Calvino describes varying books Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them Too, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered, Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified”  and seemed to include one that described his own “Books You Needn’t Read” and so I stopped.

I also laughed when Armen, one of the other members of book group, dug out his copy which was in another language (sorry Armen I have forgotten which language) and it looked like it might possibly have made more sense to me in a language I couldn’t read.

A weird book that annoyingly defeated me, almost non fiction in the way it looks at how readers read and writers write it should have worked for me but instead almost brought me out in hives. Pretty much everyone else managed to finish it, bad me, and you can see Kim’s review here. Anyone else managed it or anyone else who has been defeated?

This was a book that Armen from our book group gave me at our Christmas book swap at book group last year, and then it ends up as a read, how random!

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Filed under Book Group, Italo Calvino, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

On The Beach – Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author that I have always wanted to read, so when Polly of Novel Insights chose ‘On The Beach’ as the latest book for the Riverside Readers book group I was really pleased. However as soon as I learnt it featured two of my least favourite things in books, submarines (or boats) and nuclear apocalypse which has freaked me out since childhood, I wasn’t quite so sure. Unusual then that it’s possibly one of the most incredible, not perfect but incredible, reading experiences I have had in quite some time.

9780099530251
In an alternative 1963, bear in mind this book was originally published in 1957, a nuclear war has left nothing much of the northern hemisphere and the radiation fall out is heading south to Australia where ‘On The Beach’ is set and where the last of earths survivors are living in a mixture of denial and hope. To say all this is not to spoil the story as its pretty much spelt out to you in the first 40 pages (and of course in the blurb), in fact really you could say this story is the tale of the end of humanity, unless of course there is some major miracle – which of course I wont tell you if there is or not as you need to read this book if you haven’t.

In Australia, in the city of Melbourne and its surrounding areas, we meet Peter Holmes his wife Mary and baby Jennifer. Peter becomes a worker on a submarine set to find any signs of survival in on last major mission under its American captain Dwight Towers who he invites for the weekend when they start working together. Mary invites her friend Moira with the sole idea of her entertaining Dwight a mission it seems Moira is more than happy to undertake. From this point we follow these four characters and those close to them as the radiation draws nearer and nearer.

Nevil Shute has created possibly one of the most brilliant ‘tart with a heart’ heroines in Moira, who from her first drunken arrival on the pages (and soon followed up with a hilarious ‘accidental’ bra loosing moment which made me laugh out loud) promptly steals any scene that she is in. You could actually say to a degree it is the tales of Moira and Mary that in part make the book such a special read. I found the men rather one dimensional and a bit dull, rather like the scenes they had in the submarines, and this is where the book lost something a little for me.

I could never actually get into Peter’s thoughts and even Dwight, who has a very interesting story as he buys presents for his deceased family and still believes himself to be married (oh poor Moira), never seemed to quite walk of the page like Moira and Mary. Mary and her naïve denial actually had me laughing, which I am not sure is the intent, such as scenes where she fears that a cat may get in Jennifer’s cot and suffocate her and you the reader are thinking ‘forget the cat Mary, there’s nuclear fall out to consider’. I thought the characters made the book all the more real and readable, they felt like people you knew and could weirdly identify with them which of course led you to the question and impact that underlies this book ‘just what would you do at the end of the world?’ oh it gives me the creeps just thinking about it.

I did have two more minor quibbles the first was that I couldn’t actually believe everyone would carry on going to work and living daily life as normal without freaking out after a nuclear war, which is the depiction that Shute seemed to create. Not one character seemed to have gone completely barmy or had a breakdown which seemed odd. I will also say around page 190ish I got a tiny bit bored as those pesky submarines got a little samey, but maybe that was the intention and designed to add to the build up as the book comes to an end. Of which I shall say no more about and simply say… read this book.

I know I have picked a few holes in it but I still ended up coming away from ‘On The Beach’ feeling very emotional and its made me do quite a lot of reflecting and thinking which all the best books should do. It’s one of those books that will stick with you for days and days, I am sure I will be mulling this book and the question it raises over for weeks and weeks to come. Like I said before ‘On The Beach’ is not the perfect book but it’s an incredible one. 8.5/10 (The submarines didn’t ruin the book but they slowed it down along with their inhabitants.)

Have you read ‘On The Beach’? What was your reaction to it and what impact has it left on you? Which other post-apocalyptic books have you read that have had a lasting effect on you? I still can’t get images from ‘Children of the Dust’ which I read at school from my head, that book freaked me out so much. I am definitely going to be reading much more Shute, which of his other novels can you recommend I turn to and why?

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Filed under Book Group, Nevil Shute, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver (Reviewed by Granny Savidge)

As many of you may or may not know I tried (really hard) and failed with The Orange Prize winning ‘The Lacuna’ by Barbara Kingsolver earlier in the year. I was actually quite narked at myself initially because I hate to give up on a book but the constant waves of loving this and then really not ground me down and so I stopped. Fortunate then that Granny Savidge Reads needed to read it for her book group so when I last went up I took it in tow to find a new home and she has kindly done a post on her thoughts, so without further ado I shall hand you over…

“I have a problem with what I call Faction i.e. serious books that include historical figures in the plot (though I loved Wolf Hall). To what extend are the facts correct, where does fact end and fiction begin?

Apparently Barbara Kingsolver took 7 years to write this book and during that time she researched everything she could that went into the writing of the novel. She read everything she could about Trotsky, Rivera and Kalo; she visited all the sites mentioned in the book, she even climbed the pyramid in Mexico as Harrison does in the book.  She studied the fashions of the time and she visited Ashville where most of the second half of the book takes place. I found unbelievable the account of the Bonus Army and the camps and the riots and the army firing on the innocent and setting fire to their homes so I rushed to the computer and there it was, even a picture of some of the buildings burning. Apparently all the dates she gives are accurate such as Rivera’s and Kahlo’s visits to the U.S. and Kahlo’s fling with Trotsky. However she does give a very sympathetic portrayal of Trotsky who from all I have read was just as ruthless and murderous as Stalin.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite modern books (and one I keep telling Simon to read) so I looked forward very much to reading this one but having read it find myself confused as to what to say about it. In some parts I think her prose was brilliant so why did I find myself so often bored with it and would I even have bothered to finish it were it not for this book group. The parts about food and cooking I found especially tedious.

This is a book in two parts, the first in Mexico sort of setting the scene for the second part, but I found the combining of the two unsatisfactory maybe as some reviewers have suggested it should have been two books. As I read all the details of life in Mexico I was aware that the writer was giving an account of her own observations rather like a journalist might rather than a writer of fiction and this was before I knew about the amount or research that had gone into the book. And by the way was anyone else annoyed by the use of so many Spanish words in the first part of the book. What are carpas, or pulque or guapo or Tejamo hats? I know that Spanish is widely spoken in the States but should we poor Anglo Saxons be left to guess or continually interrupt our reading to look up words?

There are a few fictional characters in the book, the feckless mother, the wonderful cook, Leandro, my favourite minor character, Archie the lawyer. The friend Tom, I couldn’t quite see the purpose of him other than to show that even your friends desert you when the state is after you. These people float in and out of the story leaving centre stage to Harrison who is there on every page though we really only know him through his diary and notebooks and to the wonderful Violet who of course is only there in the second half although she is really making possible our journey through the book.

Despite his omnipresence I found Harrison a shadowy figure, something missing, a lacuna maybe. Neglected as a child, becomes a servant/cook/secretary and then later when he realises his true vocation as a writer he is so persecuted by the state that he gives up the thing that has always given meaning to his life. Violet Brown I loved. Sensible, down to earth and utterly loyal and reliable, a marvellous force for stability in what, until meeting her, had been an unstable life. Despite the fact that I found Harrison’s character somewhat elusive the last few pages of the book almost reduced me to tears, after all we had followed this character from childhood to manhood through all the vicissitudes of his life and we see it end so tragically or did it? Can I just say that the final part of this book is wonderful writing so for anyone who may think of giving up I would say don’t.

So what was is this book really about? How despite the passage of thousands of years man never really changes neither better or worse than he ever was. How death can come suddenly out of a sunny sky whether it be for Trotsky, or Pearl Harbour or for those killed on 9/11. How easily the power of gossip and innuendo fuelled by the press can destroy a man and can lead to the erosion of those liberties that a nation has fought for, such as freedom of speech and freedom to hold a view opposed to the prevailing opinions. It also highlights the loneliness of a writer,  in Mexico when he was hard up Harrison was always surrounded by people, in the U.S. ,as a successful writer, he spends a solitary existence apart from the company of the faithful Violet.

I read this for our U3A book group and had to give a rather nerve wrecking presentation. The other members of the group had really enjoyed the book. The meetings take place in Ellen’s house, and as we talk, over home made cakes and tea; we can watch the local bird life flitting amongst the trees that surround the house in this special corner of England.

I haven’t mentioned the title yet, I thought maybe it referred to the gaps in his life or the missing notebook or some such. Barbara Kingsolver says ‘This story is about all the things you don’t know-the other side of the story-the piece of history that has been erased.’ What do you think? Who else has read this, tried to or wants to? Simon and I would love to know your thoughts.”

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Filed under Barbara Kingsolver, Book Group, Faber & Faber, Granny Savidge Reads, Review

The Lonely Londoners – Sam Selvon

I had seen a few reviews of Sam Selvon’s book ‘The Lonely Londoners’ around the blogosphere before it was chosen by Linda for the latest discussion at The Riverside Readers book group. I had always thought it sounded like it would be interesting and quite different, plus the fact that as I live in London I do love books on the city. Yet I don’t think without book group I would have actually ended up with a copy, even despite the fact it’s a Penguin Modern Classic and has a lovely cover, or is that me showing myself in an all too materialistic light? Come on these additional things do matter even if we tell ourselves they don’t.

‘The Lonely Londoners’ is going to be quite a hard book for me to review in part because I am still not 100% sure how I feel about it and also because its written in such an unusual way. Let’s kick of with the premise and I say premise because really ‘The Lonely Londoners’ doesn’t have so much of a plot.

As ‘The Lonely Londoners’ opens we meet Moses Aloetta who is on his way to meeting a group of people who have newly arrived in the city from the West Indies. Moses having lived in London for quite some time is an initially rather begrudging welcoming committee. This is the 1950s a period after the war when many people from many countries came to the UK to find their fortune. While a small amount of them did (and these were very few and far between) most people however ended up working for anything they could get and Moses in his heart of heart is homesick. He is there to meet Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver and through these two characters and people they know we get snippets of peoples lives.

Selvon does something for me with this book which I both loved and found rather difficult all at once and I am not talking about the fact its written in a creolized voice, that actually helped the book come more alive for me. No, the difficult things is there is no exact narrative be it first person, second or third. It flits from scene to scene and person to person which whilst creating an incredible sense of London and its atmosphere at the time is actually rather confusing and disorientating. I couldn’t get a grip on the characters emotionally even though characters such as the gutsy Tanty (who is one of the only women in the book and doesn’t get mentioned much, the book to me really lost something on not having one main female voice or outlook) and Moses himself made the book really interesting in parts. I never became attached to any of them though and so, and this might make me sound callous, I ended up not caring. I also hated the misogynistic attitude of some of the characters like Cap, who seemed to somehow sleep with every woman be they black or white and treat them like garbage.  

However I don’t believe characters you don’t like should put you off a book and it was more the alienating movement from person to person. I do have to reiterate that I have read few books that evoke London and hardly any which give such a sense of time and place so simply – no over description at all. This I think really saved the book for me. Selvon builds the city at that time in such a way that it makes the book worth the read for that alone. He also writes a marvellous section of summertime London when the smog lifts in a stream of conscious one sentence long over five pages which isn’t hard to read which he should be highly commended for. There is no question he is a great writer I just wish I had felt a little more involved rather than at a distance in a whirl of people and thoughts. Maybe that’s the intention though?

A book that will: evoke London in the 1950’s effortlessly and provide a glimpse of how it feels to be a stranger in a land you believe is filled with hope and doesn’t live up to your expectation (a bit like my relationship with the book weirdly). In terms of involvement in the story this book would get a 5/10 however in terms of original writing style and such evocative time and place it would get an 8/10. So let’s settle on a 6.5/10 shall we.

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;

Small Island by Andrea Levy – The whole way through I kept thinking of this book, which is one of my favourites and I loved a lot more, and wanting to go back and read it. Though not in the exact same time it’s not far off and sees the arrival of Jamaicans to London in search of new lives.

Weirdly I would like to follow Moses in the follow up novel ‘Moses Ascending’ and wonder if that book does have more of an emotional tie to it. Not even emotional actually just some kind of attachment. Has anyone read it? Has anyone read ‘The Lonely Londoners’? Which books have you read that evoke a specific time and place you actually feel you could have been there?

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Filed under Book Group, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review, Sam Selvon

Couples – John Updike

Before I talk about the book I think it’s only fair that I explain in part why the circumstances of reading it might have made me feel slightly less about the book than I could have. Reading should be like work, if you have personal issues or busy personal stuff going on outside the office leave it there, and really I should have applied this rule to ‘Couples’ by John Updike. You see it was the latest read for the book group I co-founded ‘The Riverside Readers’ and chosen by Claire of Paperback Reader. The thing was I actually forgot book group was this week until Saturday when I thought ‘oops’ and grabbed it. Only in doing this slightly rushed it and formed a grudge against it due to my own lack of social planning awareness. So when it was very good it wasn’t half bad and when it wasn’t great it was dire, that was my mind frame. I am just being honest from the off as I am with any review.

I have always wanted to read Updike, he has been one of those authors you have on your own personal hit list, so I was rather looking forward to ‘Couples’. I also liked the salacious sounding premise ‘Couples in love. Couples at play. Couples who talk, who cheat, who lie…’ and we do indeed meet ten couples who live in Tarbox, New England during the Kennedy and post-pill era of the ‘swinging’ sixties. These couples, who dine with each other, discuss politics and religion with each other, bitch about each other and then sleep with each other behind each others backs are really the soulless heart and soul of the book.

I call them soulless (not the book) because they are all so vile, few of them have any redeeming features about them even when we do get to know some of their backgrounds, not because they aren’t well drawn or are immensely readable, which they are. When I say some of the couples I actually mean two, as the story in the main focuses on the arrival of Elizabeth Whitman aka Foxy to Tarbox and an affair that follows with Piet Hanemas. It’s therefore this duo, their predicament and their spouses, circumstances and backgrounds we get to know the rest of the couples seemed to fill two objectives a) give insights to how Foxy and Piet are perceived and b) take part in the endless drunken dinner parties where the couples try and one up each other and talk about the state of the nation to give Updike a chance to vent his thoughts on certain subjects. However, they could have not been there and the book could have been a good few hundred pages shorter were my initial thoughts after closing the last page.

Yet maybe as a reader in this decade I am missing something that others at the time got, very like I did with Amis and ‘Dead Babies’, which is the shock factor. In this present day and age this book reads a little like a soap opera, back when it was published it was shocking, controversial and I am told quite scandalous – resulting in great sales the cynic in me thinks. So this meant I was missing something as a reader in this modern age maybe. However the book is much more than just about ‘couples’ really its about womens roles at that time, their boredom and how with new drugs they could spend their spare time with other activties, though of course not all women did this.

I can’t fault Updike’s writing though (apart from one scene in a bathroom which could have been incredible if toilet humour hadn’t won the day – its not that I am a prude, it just ruined it), there’s a powerful mix of frustration and anger in it that charges the whole thing. You can picture the characters perfectly, you understand them even when you might not want to or don’t agree with them and I could visualise Tarbox perfectly. I didn’t love this book and it’s probably not the best place to start with Updike, if like me you haven’t read him before, yet it has made me want to read more.

A book that will: not be as salacious as you might hope but if you already love Updike or insights into the 1960’s then this could be a big winner for you. 7/10

This book does prove that book groups make you read things you never would. Which titles have been like that for you? Do you think books can ever be too long for a book group? Has an author ever done something (don’t plot spoil if you answer this please) that has ruined a scene for you so much it’s almost ruined the whole book? Have you read ‘Couples’ and if so what did you think? Which Updike books are the best way to start with him and which are the must reads?

Fellow book group member Kim’s thoughts here.

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Filed under Book Group, John Updike, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

Dead Babies – Martin Amis

Sometimes books that come up as choices for the Riverside Readers book group will throw a small grenade in my general reading direction. The latest choice for our meeting last Tuesday ‘Dead Babies’ by Martin Amis was one such book that almost had me running for cover when I knew that it was what we would be reading next. You see at a previous book group I was in ‘London Fields’ was chosen and I went into it with open arms only to have to give up about a quarter of the way through simply because I hated it, absolutely loathed it (not a reaction you will hear on Savidge Reads very often, I tend to keep those negative thoughts to myself) and swore I would never read an Amis again. But when Dom chose this latest title I thought ‘second chances’ and so through myself into Amis’ second novel, to a strange and surprising outcome.

‘Dead Babies’ has to be one of the most off putting titles of a book that I can think of, though undoubtedly there are some other horrors out there. The image it instantly brings you isn’t pleasant; there are no dead babies actually in the book though I can report there are some decidedly unpleasant characters. The premise of Martin Amis’ second novel, originally published in 1975, is that a group of friends are in a house on the more rural outskirts of London for a weekend  of drug and sex filled chaos with some American friends arriving in tow. Somewhere in the midst of this a mysterious character ‘Johnny’ is causing an unsettling feeling through the group, already beyond paranoid from their concoctions, by leaving evil messages and gifts. That pretty much sums up the book without giving anything away.

In writing about the book like that it doesn’t sound like its really anything special and unfortunately in some ways it isn’t. However I think that is because having read books later published such as Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ and the horrifically brilliant ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis the book doesn’t read as being as original as it perhaps was at the time, though in the 70’s there was a wave of this sort of fiction. What separates it from those other books is a mixture of humour and character history. They are all vile but you find out why, even if on occasion the reasoning behind their mental states is slightly contrived. However, with characters like Giles Coldstream who is obsessed with teeth and the vile and appalling – yet strangely likeable – Keith Whitehead who when he takes his clothes off makes people vomit and their backgrounds you do find you want to read on.

“The Whiteheads have several claims to being the fattest family alive. At the time of writing you could go along to Parky St, Wimbledon, any Sunday, one o’clock in the afternoon – and you’d see them, taking their seats in the Morris for the weekly Whitehead jaunt to Brighton.
‘Get your huge fat arse out of the way’ – ‘Whose horrible great leg is this?’ – ‘Is that your bum Keith or Aggie’s?’- ‘I don’t care whose guts these are, they’ve got to be moved’ – ‘That’s not Dad’s arm, you stupid great bitch, it’s my leg!’
‘It’s no good,’ says Whitehead Sr eventually, slapping his trotters on the steering-wheel. ‘The Morris can’t be expected to cope with this. You can take it in turns staying behind from now on.
And indeed, as each toothpaste Whitehead squeezes into the Morris, the chassis drops two inches on its flattened tyres, and when Frank himself gets in behind the wheel, the whole car seems to sink imploringly to its knees.
‘Flora, close that sodding door,’ Frank tells his wife.
‘I can’t, Frank. Some of my legs still out there.’”
  

What really works in ‘Dead Babies’, and makes this an accessible Amis book to my mind, is the humour, because in laughing your head of you do get through some pretty horrific people and their goings on without ever hating the book. I find authors who can write a book with vile lead characters like this and yet make the book enjoyable a rare breed and ‘Dead Babies’ should be applauded for that. It is also the two nicest vile characters Keith and Giles that you want to follow, in fact the book would be incredibly readable if it was just about Keith’s life.

What stopped this book from rating higher with me, because I did actually weirdly enjoy reading most of it, was that I felt like this was a book set to shock and therefore sell rather than say anything (it does clearly state drugs are stupid) and despite my personal feelings on Amis (both the pro’s and the con’s) I did think he was maybe cleverer than that. I don’t think every book you read should change your life, but surely there needs to be some substance behind what is shocking, rather than simply to make shocking scenes with no value? Also, though I liked it and it creeped me out a lot at the end, I didn’t see the relevance of the ‘Johnny’ storyline other than purely a plot device to make the book longer and make the reader carry on. That being said I finished it, which was a feat in itself both due to my prior reading of Amis. Plus despite the fact it gets quite uncomfortable amid the tears of laughter in parts its left me open to reading more of his work in the future, especially knowing that Keith Whitehead features in his new book ‘The Pregnant Widow’. 6/10

Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh (we discussed at Book Group that this may have been inspired/a homage from ‘Dead Babies’ only in the 90’s rather than the 70’s)
American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis (possibly one of the nastiest books I have ever read which is also a complete and utter masterpiece. Interestingly I would recommend this book and yet know I could never read it again, if weirdly felt I could read ‘Dead Babies’ again but am not sure I could recommend it – odd?)

Which Amis books have you read and what you recommend I read and avoid? What books have you read you would read again but might not recommend? Which books will you never read again and yet would tell anyone who hasn’t read it to rush out and get instantly? What other books have you read despite their horrid or off putting titles?

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Filed under Book Group, Martin Amis, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

I would never have imagined back at the start of the year that I would end up reading a Peruvian political thriller. However it is thanks to Armen’s latest choice for the face to face book group I am in, the Riverside Readers, that I had no choice but to give the book a whirl. I was slightly worried that I would be out of my depth with this one. I threw myself in regardless though because I always like to finish a book group book, it’s a rare book that I will give up on, which one was this?

Opening ‘Red April’ and reading the first report from our protagonist Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar (quite a mouthful) I wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be about as the cover so heavily makes you think this is going to be some highly religious book. However reading the report of a murder, by burning, you get the instant impression that this is going to be a thriller. In reality you get a little bit of both but one the whole, for me at least, you are also getting a glimpse into the cultural turbulence of Peru, something I didn’t really know that much about.

However the burnt body is the first in a series of killings during Holy Week in Ayacucho all baring striking similarities soon Felix believes he is on the trail of a serial killer which leads him into the offices of politicians, the crypts of priests, police stations and prisons and through all walks of life as he tries to solve the mystery. This of course gives Roncagliolo the perfect way of showing you how things are in Peru from girls who have to marry their rapists, the terrorism outside of the main cities and the corruption. Some could say it’s a biased view and yet you get the feeling the only sides there are out there are the bad and the worse. Back to the plot, well I don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it starts slowly but surely before building to a heady, verging on almost confusing, climax which you won’t expect – despite the fact there are quite a lot of clues from the start.

Interestingly for me one of the books weaknesses and strengths is Felix himself. From the start you know there is something not quite right about him, starting with the obsession with his dead mother (which I found both creepy and quite fascinating) the feeling of needing to be recognized for who he is and what he does. It seems to be a common theme in thrillers; your protagonist needs to be a little bit messed up, maybe a loner. Is this not at the same time therefore rather a cliché? In being the way he is I found it rather unbelievable when he starts dating a much younger girl, Edith, who becomes fairly pivotal yet the meeting and pairing is so unlikely (maybe it’s the dish of guinea pig involved) that it undermined the tale for me and niggled at me throughout.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was something that I am unsure if was the fault of an editor, the author or the translator (Edith Grossman translates this beautifully) but why on earth did we need to be introduced to Felix with his full title of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar almost every time a chapter started, or on occasion a new paragraph. It’s a small thing but again it broke the spell of the novel and began to irritate. This was a shame for me as it took me away from what was a rather gripping dark story that I wanted to get enthralled with and could never quite. I would recommend it though, it’s something different and you will learn all about Peru which makes for eye opening and sometimes shocking reading. 7/10

I am getting a little bit wary that I am using the expression ‘I have never read anything quite like this’ a lot on the blog over the last few weeks, I honestly haven’t though again in this case. I am actually seeing it as a good sign I can’t compare too many of the books I have read with others. I think it shows both through book groups and also through my reading in general I am pushing myself a little bit more and trying more out. Maybe I am fooling myself? What books have you read that have pushed you out of your comfort zone of late?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review