Category Archives: Two Roads Books

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

When the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist came out a few weeks ago Cynthia Bond’s Ruby was not one that I had heard of before. Those of you reading this in America might be looking aghast, or possibly even shouting ‘what?’ at the screen as I know it has been a bit of a hit, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club. Having now read it I am pretty sure that it is going to get read and discussed by many more people over this side of the ocean…

9781473620513

Two Roads Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of kegs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

From the opening of Ruby Cynthia Bond instantly submerges us into Liberty Township where Ruby Bell is very much the outsider in her own hometown. So much the outsider that she now lives in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the nearby woods. She has become ostracized and of course as readers we want to know why. Whilst most of the town laugh and jeer at her one man, Ephram Jennings, sees Ruby with different eyes and we soon learn he has been smitten with her since childhood. He too is seen somewhat as an outsider yet to a much lesser extent thanks to being somewhat shrouded by his sister Celia, who has followed in their Reverend father’s footsteps becoming quite the feared God fearing woman, who does not approve of Ruby at all.

You might be thinking that this is therefore going to be some great love story set against the odds. In some ways it could be seen as that and yet, as Cynthia Bond soon shows us, there are many dark corners, secrets and layers of both Ruby the character and indeed Ruby the book. And as Ephram goes in the woods to give her White Lay Angel Cake as an offering of love and acceptance, after being scared in town and dropping her bread in her own urine, he discovers that there may be something else darker in the piney woods with Ruby, and not just her memories, though something just as sinister and something that has been following Ruby since childhood.

That night, when the Dybou slid into Ruby’s bedroom, it stopped at the door. It seemed to grow larger. The air became electric. Spider cracks spread across the panes. Instead of reaching for Ruby, the Dybou lifted above her, the whole of the ceiling in shadow, then it dropped down upon the new spirit sleeping within her.
In seconds the girl was gone, inside the creature, screaming, terror flashing in her clear eyes, small arms reaching for Ruby, as the Dybou slithered across the floor.  

If you are wondering what a Dybou is, and why would you not be, without giving too much away it is an evil spirit that feeds off other spirits and can take over the body of humans. Some might say it is the spirit entity of the devil. Yes, this is where Ruby takes on a rather strange turn as it becomes more and more magically surreal. Interestingly though I found it became all the more powerful and effecting for it. As we read on we both succumb to the world in which Ruby inhabits, learn why it has come to pass that she is so filled with these demons and spirits and why her childhood in Liberty Township and then her horrendous time in New York might have driven her to the depths of madness, if she is mad? If this had been written by many another writer I would have probably put this book down very quickly, with Cynthia Bond at the helm I was mesmerised both in horror and in hope for Ruby’s possible salvation by Ephram deep in those piney woods.

The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions of objects; a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.  

As we delve deeper into the stories from the piney woods and Ruby’s story you should be warned, there are some very dark and uncomfortable scenes ahead and some are not for the faint of heart of those easily upset. However, if you can read through them Ruby is an incredibly moving, magical and menacing read that you will feel like you have experienced long after the final page. Bond looks at sexual and domestic abuse, Satanism and the supernatural, interracial racism, legends and myths, sexuality, family secrets and love. All this based in reality, in fact some of the novel is based on Cynthia Bond’s own experiences, with an infusion of magical realism. I know; that is quite a heady concoction. Ruby is one of those books that will leave you as haunted as its characters. That is where its power lies.

Ruby is one of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlisted novels that I am giving away here

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Cynthia Bond, Review, Two Roads Books

The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing. A book which no doubt I will not be able to do justice to.

Two Roads Books, hardback, 2012, non-fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

One day when Will Schwalbe was taking his mother for one of her appointments at the Memorial Sloane- Kettering Cancer Centre he asked her ‘what are you reading?’ as they sit in the waiting room. Unbeknownst to them at the time this is the start of an unofficial, and not really ever totally acknowledged book group, book club that will see them reading and swapping the same books as one another during the hospital visits and small trips away over the months ahead. These books and their themes, characters and the questions they raise also occasionally being a way of mother and son talking to each other about the situation they find themselves in without ever having to spell everything out.

This might sound a little bit gloomy, and I will freely admit I did get very teary eyed in several parts of the book, yet this is actually one of the most heart warming and (I don’t want to use the word inspirational) uplifting books about cancer, death and grief that I have ever read – and probably one of the most important because it looks at it, confronting it, head on looking at the effects cancer has on the person with it and those around them. It is also very much a book about the power that books have and not just in these most emotional and distressing times but over someone’s whole life.

As much as this book is about Mary Anne’s condition and the books that she and Will read after her diagnosis, it is also the story of an incredible woman. Without her it would be very unlikely that there is now a library in Kabul, which the US Government has given $3 million towards, Afghanistan being one of her favourite places in the world. Mary Anne started off wanting to be an actress, then directing admissions for LAMDA in America, then working in education at Radcliffe and Harvard before turning to humanitarian work in Africa, Thailand, Afghanistan with refugees also setting up the Women’s Refugee Commission and looking at literature and libraries abroad. There is all of this and also her being a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.

The whole theme of books being important at what is such a difficult time for Will and of course his mother all really chimed with me and what is going on with Gran at the moment. Though Gran doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, the tumour she has means the prognosis is similar. I am visiting whenever I can and the main thing that we both like to talk about it books. Face to face we have discussed books we have both read, authors we both wish we had and must do soon, topical things like if J.K. Rowling’s book is any good and if Mantel really should have won the Booker a second time. Every phone call, which is pretty much daily when I am not there, tends to have the question ‘what are you reading?’ thrown in at some point. Of course Will’s situation and mine are not the same, but this book made me feel like even though things will get hard and very upsetting what I have is very precious and so I am making the most out of it. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is very much a prelude to grief, if that makes sense, and is exactly where I am at mentally. Will Schwalbe felt like a friend, without that sounding weird, that I was discussing this all with and in a way has made it all feel a little bit better, if that is possible, about everything or maybe more comfortable. The power of the book.

I could literally have filled a post or two on all the wonderful quotes about the joys of reading and bookshops, debates about certain titles, cosy books and confronting and even the debate over e-reader vs. real paper books in your hands – as the book has all of these and more – the one I wanted to use though was the one that struck me the hardest and I will always keep with me as I have popped it in my book notes notebook…

‘And then something occurred to me. “You know: the thing about our book club is that we’ve really been in it all our lives.”
 Mom agreed but pointed out that she’d been doing the same but with others too – talking about books with my sister and brother and some of her friends. “I guess we’re all in it together, “ she said. And I couldn’t help but smile at the other meaning of the phrase. We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”

I want everyone I know to read this book. It doesn’t matter if you have had close contact with cancer, death or grief, this book will chime with you because you love books – which is why you have found yourself here I am guessing. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm. One of my favourite books of the year and one I will be turning to again and again.

Who else has read ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ and what did you think? Did you come away wanting to be Schwalbe’s new best friend too? I am tempted to write to him just about books. Which books have you read at just the right point in your life be it sad, difficult or happy? I would love to hear your experiences with books that have done that.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Review, Two Roads Books, Will Schwalbe