Tag Archives: The Readers Summer Book Club

Savidge Reads Books of 2012 – Part One…

I was going to try and be really brave and break the habit of this blogs and just do a single top ten books of the year. I tried and tried and tried, and I failed. I simply couldn’t only have ten, in fact I actually had a top thirty roughly, but then I have read 167 books (Green Carnation submissions always bump this figure up, what will next year be like without them) this year so maybe that will make it slightly more understandable. So what I have done once again is have two top tens, one of the books published for the first time in the UK in 2012 and another with all the other books published before that – it is the latter we are focusing on today. For the full review click on the link, I have chosen a highlighting paragraph to tempt you for this post.

10. The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough

I really liked the fact Bullough creates this sense of place and people and wants you to work with him on building the bigger picture and using all the things unsaid along with tiny tensions to create the full narrative tale.  I think by now you will have probably guessed that I thought ‘The Claude Glass’ was an unusual and incredibly accomplished piece of writing, silently impressive and one that rewards you in many ways.

9. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead by Marieke Hardy

‘You’ll Be Sorry When I Am Dead’ is one of those books which manages to make you laugh out loud, feel ever so uncomfortable at its honesty, possibly makes you want to cry and then makes you laugh all over again. When someone writes their memoirs it isn’t necessarily that the full truth doesn’t come out, just that the author tends to look at things in a rose tinted way, highlighting their best bits – not so in the case of Marieke.

8. Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute.

7. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein

‘The World That Was Ours’ shows the power of books, writing, journalism and memoir. When it was published back in 1967 it was a dangerous book to release and there were many people who would have liked to see it destroyed. Thank goodness it found a publisher back then and thank goodness Persephone have chosen it as a book to reprint for us to discover because it is just the sort of book that everyone should read. I will be re-reading this again for definite.

6. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

You can feel the sense of unease on almost every page, both in a combination of the mystery of Hiero unraveling 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… and it stays with you long after you read it.

5. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

There were so many things that I loved about Beryl Bainbridge’s writing that it might be hard to encompass them all, I will endeavour to try though. First of all is how much is in such a small book. At a mere 200 pages, and in fairly big print which could be devoured in a few hours, so much happens that when you have finished you find yourself recapping it all and thinking ‘did that all just happen in this book?’ There are funerals, hilarious seductions in cellars, hilarious seductions in a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom, a mother in law with a grudge to bear and a gun in her handbag, a fight in Windsor Castle, horse riding with the Queen’s funereal regiment, something awful on an outing which leads to a strange trip to a safari park, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

4. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn

I always admire an author who can write beautifully and simply, an author who can create the most understated of melodramas will win me over. I also always admire an author who can write a passage that chills you before one that makes you laugh out loud and then another which horrifies you all over again. All these things are encompassed in Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel ‘Never Mind’.

3. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I don’t think I have yet read a piece of fiction which seems to encapsulate the entire breadth in which cancer can affect people and not just those in the eye of the storm it creates. Ness looks at the full spectrum of emotions for all those involved, from Conor, his mother and grandmother to those on the periphery such as Conor’s teachers. He takes these feeling and reactions, condenses them and then makes them readable, effecting, emotional and compelling in just over 200 pages. The monster itself is also an incredible character being utterly evil in many ways and yet having hints of goodness amongst the chaos he creates so that you are never quite sure if he is friend or foe.

2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

1.  Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

I think ‘Kiss Kiss’ will undoubtedly remain one of my favourite short story collections, and one that I will happily dip in and out of again and again in the future. It has that delightfully dark, yet awfully darkly funny, essence to it that I just really enjoy. It has made me want to go out and read all of Dahl’s other adult work (especially with the covers in this new series by Penguin) and also dig out my old childhood favourites which I am sure I will now see in a whole new light. I would definitely recommend that you read this collection if you haven’t, they are mini macabre masterpieces.

So that is my first top ten of 2012 and all the books I really, really loved published before this year that I read this year. Make sense? I do also want to mention ‘Now You See Me’ by S.J. Bolton, ‘Packing For Mars’ by Mary Roach (both of which I read for The Readers Summer Book Club and adored), ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen and ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens (both have been part of Classically Challenged and the latter of which I will be talking about tomorrow), all highly recommended.

So what about your what are your post-2012 books of 2012? Which of these have you read and what did you think? Any other books you would recommend you think I might like having loved the above? Do pop back for Part Two on Monday!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2012

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

Can a Book Group Be Bad For a Book?

Both whilst recording the latest episode of The Readers Summer Book Club and then compiling my post on the book, ‘Bleakly Hall’ by Emlaine Di Rollo, itself afterwards has raised a question in my head… Can a book group be a bad thing for certain books and the reading experience around them?

One of the things I love most about a book group is the discussion, the gossip; chatting and wine afterwards is all a bonus. I have found with book groups in the past that discussing a book I didn’t like and hearing everyone else’s thoughts on it can sometimes make me d a complete 180 with my opinion. It can also be an utter joy, and rather bonding as I found with ‘Mary Barton’, if you all loathe a book and can sit and pick it apart. Yet what if you really enjoyed reading a book and others pick it apart, can it kill it for you?

This has very rarely happened to me before in any book groups that I can think of. Why is this so? Well I think it is because I tend to be more critical about books I am reading with my ‘book group’ brain on, yes even more so than when I am reading a book to review. With reviews I analyse the way a book made me feel and the questions it raises itself of makes me ask myself, yet with a book group book I tend to pick it apart all the more. Or maybe I do this all the time and yet am only aware of it when prepping for a book club – yes indeed, I prep.

It is this very reason why I have never suggested reading a Daphne Du Maurier book as a choice of my own to any group I have been part of, other members have and I have always been quite fearful that my favourite authors work will be picked to death and my love of Daphers altered. Fortunately Daphne tends to be so wonderful that this rarely happens.

Yet for the first time ever recently as I read a book I was thoroughly enjoying, the aforementioned ‘Bleakly Hall’, I found that as I knew I would be discussing it in detail I started to pick it apart as I read not afterwards. Normally I always do this afterwards, not during, and I am not sure why it changed with this book but I ended up almost sabotaging reading it because I was pre-empting the questions/reactions/subjects that the book would raise. It had a house of cards effect/loose thread effect and I started picking.

This then made me wonder if some books are just not book group books. For example, and I am not comparing ‘Bleakly Hall’ to this series it is just an example, I would never take an Agatha Raisin mystery to a book group. It and I would be annihilated and those, for me, are just books I read for pleasure, no more no less and there is nothing wrong with books that you simply read and are entertained by the whole way through. I think ‘Bleakly Hall’ would have been just such a book if I wasn’t reading it in the context I did.

So I wondered if any of you had found that there are some books that simply should be avoided as book group choices. Obviously with book group books the idea is no one has read them and so there is always the risk it won’t work I suppose but maybe some experiences/titles stick out in particular? Do you agree some books should simply be read and enjoyed, not picked apart or should all books be treated with the same analytical internal eye of a reader?

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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