Category Archives: The Readers Summer Book Club

Pure – Andrew Miller

There are books that you mean to read for ages and ages and simply don’t get around to; ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller has been one such book for me. With its cemetery setting (I do like a cemetery, I was even a tour guide for one) and the fact it sounded like a dark, brooding, sensational and gothic novel I thought this was going to be the ideal book for me from its release date. I didn’t read it. It then won the Costa prize and again ignited my interest in it. I didn’t read it. Then I begged Gavin to put it on the list of The Readers Summer Book Club titles and so had to read it. So finally I ended up reading it about a year after I intended to. How does this happen with books?

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The year is 1785 as ‘Pure’ opens and we meet Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the countryside who is put in charge of demolishing the oldest (and smelliest) cemetery in Paris, les Innocents, which many believe has become the blight of the city. In doing so Barratte faces one of the most difficult tasks of his career, initially it seems just from a logistical point of view, however as time goes on events unfold Barratte realises that this could be the most difficult tasks for many more reasons than professional, and that a place some wish to destroy is held dear by some.

That all sounds rather grand, gothic and indeed ‘sensational’ which was all part and parcel of why I was looking forward to the book so much. Within a few chapters I was hooked by Miller’s writing, from Barratte’s first meeting at Versailles to his first steps in les Innocents, which is incredibly atmospheric. The stench of the streets, markets and people around the cemetery which have become coated in the stench of death comes of the pages and you can feel it cloying at you. It’s hideous yet also wonderful to feel the place and its history coming alive before your eyes as you read on.

“She has watched it all her life and has never wearied of it, the market and – more directly in her view – the old church of les Innocents with its cemetery, though in the cemetery nothing has happened for years, just the sexton and his granddaughter crossing to one of the gates, or more rarely, the old priest in his blue spectacles, who seems simply to have been forgotten about. How she misses it all. The shuffling processions winding from the church doors, the mourners tilted against each other’s shoulders, the tolling of the bell, the swaying coffins, the muttering of the office and finally – the climax of it all – the moment the dead man or woman or child was lowered into the ground as though being fed to it. And when the others had left and the place was quiet again, she was still there, her face close to the window, keeping watch like a sister or an angel.”

I do love a really dark book and I like a good mystery and as I devoured the first part of the book, in almost a single sitting, I had this wonderful feeling of apprehension in my stomach as things in the Monnard, where Barratte resides, go bump and scratch in the night and whispers are heard and people spy on others sleeping. That and the mystery of those unhappy to see Barratte at the church in les Innocents were making a wonderful ominous concoction and I was thoroughly enjoying it.

I don’t know quite what happened in the second part of the novel, I am not sure if it was Barratte going home to the countryside to find his friend Lecouer, and his mining men, to help him with his task or if it was the introduction of several new strands such as a love story and then the actual task of demolishing, but I sort of lost my way. The writing stayed powerful, precise and completely atmospheric and yet characters names started to confuse me, which woman was which etc, and the task of moving the bodies, which was initially gorily interesting (with mummified corpses and random bones with stories to tell) started to bog me down a little, the mystery seemed to vanish with practicality for a while. Miller did pull it out the bag for me again after this when something completely unexpected and dark happens to Barratte (though it was resolved a little neatly and vaguely all at once) and within the final ten chapters the book had the pace and sense of menace that beguiled me at the start.

The middle did sort of interrupt my flow, partly because I kept having to re-read it and make notes of who was who and why there were there. Yet oddly this isn’t a book that is difficult to read or, again I must praise the writing, get lost in because of its atmosphere, I just wondered if it was trying to do a little too much at one point and so it spread its strengths out which slightly weakened it in the middle over all. Whinge over though because as I said the last third of the book completely won me round and I was shocked with the sudden few twists that came.

So overall I really, really enjoyed ‘Pure’. Without a doubt les Innocents as a place and indeed a character of its own is the absolute star of the show because of the stunning way Miller creates it in your head with his prose. I loved the darkness of the book, it is also darkly funny in parts, and indeed I was fascinated by the period in history which I feel I simply don’t know enough about. A book I would recommend but not sensationalise in case you were left slightly disappointed by the hype someone else had created, which I think was my slight problem with ‘Pure’, though a problem I think I had created in my own head. I will re-read it one day far in the future without expectations and see if it does better, as I do want to return to les Innocents and Miller’s writing is incredible.

Who else out in the ether has read ‘Pure’ and what did you think? Who has read any of Miller’s other books? Where should I go next with regard to reading him? I have been thinking ‘Casanova’ or ‘Ingenious Pain’ might be my next port of call maybe.

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Andrew Miller, Review, Sceptre Publishing, The Readers Summer Book Club

Redemption in Indigo – Karen Lord

One of the books in The Readers Summer Book Club that I am really pleased I was introduced to after Gavin suggested it go on the list was ‘Redemption in Indigo’  by Karen Lord. I have to admit I hadn’t really been aware of the book and whilst I loved the sound of it being based on an old folk/fairytale (especially after the success I had with Eowyn Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ earlier this year) I do admit the fact it has been labelled as ‘speculative’ or ‘genre’ fiction did concern me a little. I am not a genre snob; I just occasionally worry that if things get too outlandish I might lose the thread. There is a fine line, for me, between fantastical and fantasy but I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound” and so it was chosen.

Jo Fletcher Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 280 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

It has been said that ‘Redemption in Indigo’ is simply a retelling of an old Senegalese folk talk of a woman who married a man who couldn’t stop eating and then left him. However Karen Lord does so much more than that as whilst the premise of the novel starts out with Paama leaving her gluttenous husband Ansige the tale then goes off into a world of its own, and indeed its a world like our own yet utterly unlike it. You might be reading a newpaper in the local bar and turn and find a huge spider talking to you, you may be spied on by djombi (spirits) overtaking insects or small children to do so or you may end up being given what looks like a rather antique stick without realising it is the Chaos Stick, once owned by the Indigo Lord, which gives you magical powers. These are the things that happen to characters in ‘Redemption in Indigo’ in fact in the latter case it is really what the whole book is about.

I want to, and am indeed about to, use the cliché that this book had me rather spell bound, and I think that is all to do with the fact it is rather fantastical and magical yet also because I loved the way in which the book was written and the story told. You see the story is quite literally told to you in the form, most of us were lucky enough to have, of your parent/s telling you after they had tucked you in to bed at night. The unnamed storyteller even makes a joke of adding in ‘once upon a time’ a few paragraphs in. I found it rather beguiling and found myself lost in a mixed state of reading a book that I felt was reading itself to me, a rare and rather unusual experience which had a certain warmth to it.

In fact if you could call a book ‘warm’ then that would be exactly how I would describe ‘Redemption in Indigo’ full stop. It has the almost cosy-like warmth of the narrator, then there is the warmth of the setting of the book (I couldn’t work out if it was African or Caribbean whilst reading, I have discovered it was the latter) there is also a real warm humour throughout the book both with some of the scrapes Paama’s husband ends up in on his quest for food and with the narrator dropping in little asides as we go on further.

“I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known?”

It is also a rather delightfully enigmatic book. As I mentioned before I couldn’t really place exactly where the book was set, in terms of continent as all the villages etc are wonderfully described. Nor, as I read on, could I quite determine the time period it was set in, one moment people are reading magazines in a busy city, the next they are going by horse and cart down dusty tracks in the middle of nowhere, oh and once the Indigo Lord turns up people travel by bubble. I also liked the elements of mini stories within the stories, it is very much a story about storytelling the more I think about it. My only slight quibble was that I wanted more, more about Paama’s sister, her life before and much more about what the Indigo Lord and the chaos stick before we meet them and maybe a little more chaos after we do. Here I should say that by more I don’t mean this book was lacking anything, I literally mean I wanted more of all the elements and more of Lord’s writing.

I’m still slightly puzzled by the labelling of ‘speculative’ or ‘genre’ fiction on ‘Redemption in Indigo’ for me it was simply a wonderfully told rather magical story, but the debate goes on and I don’t want to open that can of worms. If you like a fantastical folk/fairytale then I would heartily recommend it. I was more than happy to simply be taken along with the book, its narrator and its characters and enjoy myself with the magical moments as they came and went.

Has anyone else read Karen Lord’s debut? What did you make of it? Is it genre or literary? Does it even matter?

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Jo Fletcher Books, Karen Lord, Review, The Readers Podcast, The Readers Summer Book Club

Now You See Me – S.J. Bolton

I do really enjoy a good thrilling murder, in the fictional sense of course, and yet for some reason I never read enough of them. I think it is because I really enjoy them and so I treat them as a, erm, treat. This is not to be confused with a guilty pleasure. I am known for liking some rather cosy crime series but I am also partial to a dark tale of serial killers or something with a deep brooding psychological menace about it. That is why I wanted to read ‘Now You See Me’ by S.J. Bolton as part of The Readers Summer Book Club, that and the fact it had a Jack the Ripper element (which I have always found fascinating because of the enigma), oh and the fact that it was said to be a bit grisly and Gavin tends to shy away from those kind of crime novels. I am thrilled (see what I did there) that we did read it as, even though its only my first book with S.J. Bolton, I may have found a new favourite crime author at the start of a possible future favourite crime series.

Corgi Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 512 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

On the streets of London it appears someone has decided, on the 120th anniversary of his very first killing, copy the method of murders for which Jack the Ripper became so renowned. Detective Constable Lacey Flint happens upon the final moments of the first victim whilst working on a completely different case. Yet as the murders progress it becomes clear that Lacey Flint has caught the killers eye and so soon she finds herself embroiled in her first murder case but is she a suspect, accomplice or victim?

From that premise, which I have done in the usual crime blurb style, you know what you are getting as you start to read ‘Now You See Me’, or do you? One of the things that I loved the most about this book was the fact that I have to hold my hands up and say that I had no idea who the killer was, then when on a random moment I thought I did S.J. Bolton would pull the rug out from under me with a twist I couldn’t see coming. Yet for me this book is also much more than just your average serial killer book.

The first thing that really stands out, and sets ‘Now You See Me’ apart from many of its contemporaries is its narrator Lacey Flint. From the get go you are completely unsure about her. The fact that she finds the first victim in a rather gruesome and shocking way (the book can be a little gory, but with a Jack the Ripper copycat killer what would you expect) we feel a mixture of sympathy and suspicion for her, as does another of the main characters DI Joesbury, who also rather fancies her. Lacey is one of the most flawed characters I have met in a while and not in your stereotypical ‘alcoholic member of the police’ kind of way, it is much deeper than that and all lies in her past but you need to read the book to find out more.

The other element I really liked was the atmosphere. London in the present is a really dark presence in the book and shades that Bolton uses to recreate the Victorian London that Jack frequented are brought through to the presence, the Thames in particular comes across as a real murky vein running through the heart of an unsettled town, yet you can also tell Bolton loves the city too, it’s very deftly done. I also loved the Ripper elements both in the past (which showed some great reserach but never showed off, and a whole new theory on the Ripper I had never heard before) and the copycat in the present, am I allowed to say that reading murderers who have so much relish was weirdly entertaining? Is that the police knocking at my door, oh dear!

It is hard to say too much about ‘Now You See Me’ without spoilers or sounding too sycophantic. It is really a book of layers, you have the layers of the atmosphere of London (though the book does travel to Cardiff), the multiple facets and layers of the characters from the killer to Lacey and all the cops in between and also it is a book which has more than just a layer of murder, you get to know the victims and those affected by the horrific events that unfold you also get to look at some of the social issues affecting our times. ‘Now You See Me’ is a page turning thriller which carries a lot of additional twists, turns, emotions and punch to its contemporaries. I will be reading much more of S.J. Bolton’s books, if you haven’t started them then I suggest you do with this one. Clichéd as it sounds you will be utterly gripped, my thriller of the year so far.

Have you read this book or any other books by S.J Bolton? What is your thriller of the year so far? Do you have a favourite crime series that I might be missing out on?

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Corgi Books, Review, S.J. Bolton, The Readers Summer Book Club

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Sometimes I think that we all need to read books that take us out of our comfort zone don’t we. In fact that can be a main factor of why people join book groups be they in the flesh, like the Manchester Book Club which I have just started reading ‘The Master and Margarita’ for,  or online, as I am with the Readers Summer Book Club. One title that I was insistent should be on the Summer Book Club list, because I wanted to read it and test myself, was Ernest Cline’s novel ‘Ready Player One’ which with its mixture of science fiction and dystopian themes I thought would be rather a test and a change from my usual reads.

Arrow Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The earth we meet in ‘Ready Player One’ is not a pleasant one. It is 2044 and humans have consumed the entire world’s oil, famine and poverty are widespread and the climate is pretty much ruined. The world is such a dreadful place that most people find themselves escaping it by plugging into the OASIS, a virtual utopia where you can become anyone you want in one of the ten thousand planets available online.

Yes, humans are escaping their lives by living virtual ones. However when the founder of OASIS, James Halliday, dies he makes the OASIS an even more exciting and dangerous place by leaving all his money (billions) and control of the OASIS to whomever can find a hidden set of keys within the OASIS on the biggest, and most riddle filled, quest that the virtual world has ever seen. Our narrator, Wade Watts, a young guy living in the poverty ridden stacks (trailers piled high shared by multiple families) with his unloving aunty is one such man, and he has not long found the first of the keys.

Phew! That looks like quite a synopsis but actually there are no spoilers in that and really I have only given you the very beginnings of the story as you join it, though I won’t give much else away because part of the fun of ‘Ready Player One’ is following Wade and his competitors, some good some very bad, as they try to solve the riddles Halliday has left them in a virtual world of endless possibilities.

‘A small mirror was mounted inside my locker door, and I caught a glimpse of my virtual self as I closed it. I’d designed my avatar’s face and body to look, more or less, like my own. My avatar had a slightly smaller nose than me, and he was taller, and thinner. And more muscular. And he didn’t have any teenage acne. But aside from all these minor details, we looked more or less identical. The school’s strictly enforced dress code required that all students avatars be human, and of the same gender and age as the student. No giant two-headed hermaphrodite demon unicorn avatars were allowed. Not on school grounds, anyway.’

I have to admit that when I knew this virtual world held around ten thousand planets within it I almost let out an inward grown. I pictured in my head a book that would never end because it has these endless places that could be explored; this isn’t the case at all. Ernest Cline clearly had a framework set in mind, the plotting of this novel and its riddles must have been incredibly hard work and meticulously done, and so you go on an exciting journey where the possibilities are endless but because there is a goal the characters remain quite focused yet there are of course thrills and twists along the way too, all as Halliday had planned you imagine. There is also much humour thrown in along the way which really adds to the enjoyment and you almost feel like you are playing a game as you read. It reminded me of the ‘fighting fantasy’ game books I played as a teenager by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone where you had to chose which page you would turn to next and a scenario where you were the hero played out… I always died, I risked too much (I bet none of you would even have thought I would have played these games, ha). In ‘Ready Player One’ we the reader can’t decide or die but the characters can, the homage seemed to be there though.

I think actually this feeling of those game books is a purposeful one by Cline as this book is also really a huge nostalgia fest and homage to the 1980’s, as much as it is a geek fest to comics, video games etc. This could have been alienating, I was after all only born in 1982, yet I got a lot of the references (the fact She-Ra was mentioned in this book won it brownie points, I loved that fact Halliday’s funeral was superimposed over a funeral scene in ‘Heathers’ too) and even when I didn’t get all the jokes it didn’t matter. I was really impressed by the way Cline managed this and liked the additional twist this gave to the book, I think Cline’s passion came through and I found myself reminiscing and embracing my not so long forgotten inner geek.

If I had to draw out any quibbles I had with the book the first would be that just on occasion I sometimes couldn’t work out if we were in the OASIS or back on earth in 2044, and occasionally I did get a little lost in the OASIS but I was expecting this, in fact I was expecting to do it a hell of a lot more than I did. The other slight issue was that because the book is such an epic adventure and because so much of it is set in the virtual world I didn’t really feel like I got to know any of the characters, apart from Wade, as much as I would have liked to. You do get snippets of their back stories but I liked them and wanted more, which is a compliment, and as most of the time we know them as their avatars it is expected they might be a little one dimensional as they project who they want to be known as. That said there is a love story and a real tale of friendship in this novel.

I really, really enjoyed ‘Ready Player One’. I wasn’t sure it would be my kind of book at all but the adventure and story really took hold of me, along with the humour, and I was gripped. Ignore the fact that it’s got quite a sci-fi twist, or the fact it may be deemed as a tale for those who want the 80’s nostalgia because it is more than that. It’s a funny, rollicking and escapist read that I thoroughly recommend.

Who else has read this and what did you think? Had you initially been put off a little by the premise at all? If you are a diehard sci-fi fan what were your thoughts?

This was a book  I read for The Readers Summer Book Club, alas due to some complications we have had to postpone the show with Ernest, hopefully we will be able to record one soon.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Ernest Cline, Review, The Readers Podcast, The Readers Summer Book Club

Bleakly Hall – Elaine Di Rollo

I have often spouted about the fact that whether you enjoy a book can be down to everything being aligned right, your mood, the weather, the seasons and other such things. Some people doubt this; I however think it is the truth. One thing I do forget about is that why you are reading a book can sometimes affect your thoughts on it too. ‘Bleakly Hall’, by Elaine Di Rollo is one such book. It is one that as I read it, I was utterly under its spell and yet because I was reading it for The Readers Summer Book Group I knew I would have to talk about it and so think I might have over analysed it and overly questioned it meaning in hindsight I traipsed all over its sparkle. Let me explain further…

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 360 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Bleakly Hall’ is really a book of two halves (which sounds like I am starting with a cliché) one half of the story is that of the people working and staying at a hydropath after the First World War, Monty and Ada having been two female comrades on the frontlines, Monty having been a nurse and Ada an ambulance driver.

Monty also nursed with a woman called Sophia who died yet left an old score to settle with a Captain Foxley who Monty learns resides at ‘Bleakly Hall’ where Ada now works, the narrative switches between Monty coming to the hall to confront Foxley, but getting beguiled and sidetracked by staff and the likes while there, and the story of the war unfolding to reveal what happened to Sophia.

What is wonderful about this novel is also what in the end causes me to pick some faults in it. I loved the fact there was a mystery to the novel, what on earth had happened to Sophia, how was Foxley involved and why on earth did Monty have such a need to settle this old score? I loved the characters, Monty and Ada in particular but also Dr Slack (who had such an appropriate name I could almost feel Elaine Di Rollo joining me in a wry smile as I read on) and even the odd Blackwood brothers, the good one and the bad. I also really enjoyed the humour in the novel; it was thoroughly entertaining and occasionally laugh out loud funny.

‘Monty followed the doctor’s gaze. She did indeed look dreadful. Her cap was awry on her head, her hair limp and bedraggled. She had a surprised look on her face, as though still stunned by disembodied buttocks, shoving between anonymous thighs like a naked gardener wrestling with a reluctant wheelbarrow.’

It also provides a real lightness against the horrors of the war and the effects it leaves on people, which through the back story of Sophia and through some of the issues with the characters in the present, like Foxley who we learn is suffering post traumatic stress disorder, is incredibly moving and sometimes rather harrowing.

‘The first man they reached was dead. It was impossible to say why, as he seemed simply to be sleeping, his face peaceful beneath the smoky sky. The second and third were also dead, one having bled to death of a wound to the neck. He lay as though on a rust-covered carpet, a circle of his own blood sinking into the earth around him. The other had been shot through the head.’

So if I liked these two strands of the book, and the prose and style, where did it not work for me? Well firstly as I said I did really enjoy the book however, without giving any spoilers, there are some wonderful almost fairytale like set pieces in both the modern narrative and indeed some of the non WWI flashback sequences, such as one involving a hat being rescued from a bear compound, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading throughout. Yet because these have a sense of the surreal, slightly farcical and magic this feeling is at complete odds with the utter horror which we witness through all the characters memories of war, these in turn making the book seem a little disjointed. It’s enjoyable but becomes implausible.

Now I know not all books should be realistic, I don’t expect them to be and enjoy escapism of all types, but the world they create be it one we know or not should feel fully formed or cohesive and yet the sections of the book in the war don’t match the ones in ‘Bleakly Hall’, yet Bleakly Hall’s whole story wouldn’t exist without the war, Monty knowing Ada and wanting to confront Captain Foxley. I hope all this makes sense because in over analysing it for a book club I think I may have over thought about it.

I think had I not been reading ‘Bleakly Hall’ as a book to dissect and discuss I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It’s a funny, dark and moving story brimming with wonderful set pieces and larger than life characters. It’s a book that entertains you and while it has a few flaws here and there (and not many books are flaw free) takes you to a slightly bonkers and bizarre world. Some books should simply be read and enjoyed, not dissected, this is one of them.

Has anyone else read this or Elaine Di Rollo’s other novel? I would love to hear your thoughts on the book, I will certainly read more. If you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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Filed under Elaine Di Rollo, Review, The Readers Summer Book Club, Vintage Books

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

I don’t dabble in much non-fiction it has to be said. I often worry that non-fiction equals boring, books of endless descriptions and facts don’t tend to work for me, and this includes fiction novels where the author is showing off the research, they feel like a lecture. I do like to learn about new things though. Not a contradiction in terms at all am I? Narrative non-fiction is good for this, as are books that make learning fun, conversational and occasionally a little bit naughty yet always with a sensitivity. Do such books exist? Of course, if they are written by Mary Roach, and ‘Packing for Mars’ is her latest book all about the great unknown that is space.

OneWorld Books, paperback, 2011, non-fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to admit that when I heard that Mary Roach’s new novel was going to be about space the thought of ‘what, really?’ went through my head. She had already covered death (‘Stiff’), the supernatural and paranormal (‘Six Feet Over’) and sex (‘Bonk’) so space worried me slightly, I wasn’t sure th subject would hold me quite like the others.

I admit I was intrigued by the planets and stars as a youngster, but I have never had even the slightest interest in being an astronaut or humans travelling through the unknown. I certainly don’t rush to see films like ‘Apollo 13’ though the idea of aliens intrigues me. That said ‘Packing for Mars’ being packed – do you see what I did there – with wit, humour and the questions you would like to ask but probably wouldn’t dare to if you could, it was a real winner with me.

“Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the in-between.”

Being non-fiction ‘Packing for Mars’ doesn’t have a plot and so not only is it really hard to give you enough of taster, especially as the book is crammed with fascinating facts and true tales of space travel, it is is rather hard to write about it in depth. I don’t want to tell you all of my favourite stories and nuggets away because then you might not read the rest, though in truth I loved the entire book and that is because when you read a Mary Roach book you feel like you are having a conversation, full of giggling, with her. There are even knowing jokes and asides in the form of the footnotes. It is just a pure pleasure to read. It also makes the facts and information fun and who knew knowing more about things like gravity etc could be so much fun?

“To understand the Project Albert mind-set, you need to spend a few moments pondering the forces of gravitation. If you are like me, you have tended to think of gravity in terms of minor personal annoyances: broken glassware and sagging body parts. Until this week, I failed to appreciate the gravitas of gravity.”

This is not a case of dumbing down the scientific either, I do fear some people may read the blurb and think that Mary Roach isn’t taking this seriously as she looks at how people go to the toilet or vomit in a spacesuit (which made me laugh) and how they cope with no air, hot showers etc but it is her curiosity and interest in everything that can happen in a space ship that makes it so interesting.  It is not all jokes either. With scientific experiments come the tests, the accidents and the things that go wrong, and when talking about dead bodies, monkeys being used as test pilots and other slightly morbid twists, she is also incredibly sensitive and looks at it all from an emotional level too.

‘Packing for Mars’ is a book that levels with its reader, almost saying ‘I didn’t think space could be so interesting did you? But look at this… and this… and this.’ Her enthusiasm catches you through the pages and I bet you will find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter, oh go on then and another’, I know I did. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, so do please give it a whirl.

Have you read this book? Have you read any of Mary Roach’s other non-fiction novels? Which non-fiction books, not including narrative non-fiction, have you been charmed by rather than lectured at? I feel very lucky as whilst reading this book felt like having a conversation with Mary Roach, I actually had one with her and Gavin for The Readers Summer Book Club which you can listen to here, and if that doesn’t convince you to read the book nothing will. She’s hilarious.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Mary Roach, Non Fiction, OneWorld Books, The Readers Summer Book Club

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

Sometimes you try a book and it can seem a little too dense at the time, you know there is something marvellous in there but the timing isn’t right, so you put the read ‘on hold’. These aren’t books that you give up on and leave, you save them for some unknown time in the future. ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan was one such book for me and so when we were choosing titles for The Readers Summer Book Club I pushed this title, not thinking that Esi (having won so many awards) would say yes, but she did, and so it was time to try it again.

Serpents Tail Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

What really happened to Hieronymus Falk, a young black jazz musician full of talent who was arrested by the Nazi’s in 1940? This is the question at the heart of Esi Edugyan’s second novel. Yet, told through the narrative of one of Hieronymus’ friends – or Hiero/’The Kid’ as we learn to call him – retired ex-jazz musician Sidney Griffiths (which rings all the more authentic by the style as you will see below) we also have a tale of friendship, jealousy, love, race and war – quite a powerful combination.

The mystery of what happened to Hiero is really only part of the driving force. As Sid tells us of his time in a jazz band with Hiero and Sid’s long term friend-cum- enemy, dependent on mood and situation, Chip, Paul and Fritz we realise that Sid has been living with the secret of his possible involvement in what happened to Hiero. We also watch as jealousies arise around talent and women, when the enigmatic and rather elusive Delilah comes upon the scene.

I thought that mixing the strands of tensions between Sid and Chip as well as Sid and Heiro was, for me, one of the greatest successes of the book. Be a friendship new or old, if you have it for a long time at close range, regardless of the brink of war at any point, tensions will arise and Edugyan creates these brilliantly, especially when a very famous musician comes to town. Being a group of black men there is also the tension outside of the group, the rise and fall of jazz also seems to occur with the rise of the Aryan ideal in Germany and the fall of the Jews.

“Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damned fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing the vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of the master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines.”

I have to admit that I had no real knowledge of what happened to black people in either of the World Wars or the time between them. This sounds horribly ignorant I know yet at school we were very much taught about the Nazi and Jew divide and how Britain and France joined forces to combat it. Edugyan opened my eyes, through her fictional version of events, to some of the horrors that I had no clue of. I found this grimly fascinating and also extremely important. I have often said, and I don’t mean this in an offensive way, that I am bored of WWII books. Here with ‘Half Blood Blues’ Esi Edugyan gives us something really different and a completely new insight into that period in history.

The other successful part of the book are also the atmosphere of the book as we move from America in Chip and Sibs childhood to both Berlin and Paris in the 1930s/40s and even the recent past as the books shifts in chronological order. You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unravelling and war drawing nearer does give the book a slight thriller twist. If you think that is a negative thing it is not I promise you because Edugyan merges the literary elements of the novel with the tension and pace perfectly.

“Anxiety hung over the streets like clothes on a line. When we walked them cobblestones, we seen families huddled in their apartments, crouched over the wireless. Waiters was bent over counters, listening to static. Hell, in those first tender days it seem like everyone was hunched on up over some radio somewhere, it ain’t mattered where, staying put, like if they moved they might miss the war.”

What really sold the book overall to me was the ending, which of course I won’t give away as you need to read this book if you haven’t already, and how we get to it. I cannot think of a recent book where the author has so firmly and rather alarmingly emotionally and just in terms of storyline, thrown me by pulling the rug from under my feet. Emotional twist after emotional twist comes and it is all the more powerful because the build up Edugyan has created has been so expertly drawn out, I did struggle in the middle a little with so much story and scene setting yet at the end I knew why. What connects all the most successful elements of the book is Esi Edugyan’s of course her prose which is wonderful. I don’t know if you can tell but I really thought this book was rather incredible in so many ways.

The premise of Esi Edugyan’s second novel ‘Half Blood Blues’ might not instantly sound like a book you might want to read being the tale of a group of jazz musicians in the days leading up, and indeed the start of, World War II. It was something that would have put me off if I hadn’t heard so many rave reviews about it here there and everywhere and seen it get listed for pretty much every award it is eligible for. However do believe the praise (which I am now happily adding to) as Edugyan delivers a novel that is brimming with atmosphere, is hauntingly written and will really move you (this book, clichéd as it sounds, really kicked me in the emotional guts) and it stays with you long after you read it. I am late to this book; don’t let yourself be though as it is a truly marvellous read and one I am glad I returned to at just the right time.

As I mentioned above, I read this finally because of The Readers Summer Book Club which it was the first of the selection of. You can hear myself and Gavin interviewing the author and discussing the book with special guests here.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Esi Edugyan, Review, Serpent's Tail, The Readers Summer Book Club