Thursday, 8 September 2011

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

Not sure what I expected with this book. With a title involving God, an opening that includes a child asking her family if God loved her and then the appearance of a talking rabbit it could have veered in any direction. I'm not really religious and wasn't really wanting to read a book that was going to heavily preach religion.

The book didn't try to get us to church on a Sunday however and reverted to a more 'normal' storey of a family set up over the course of several decades. It symbolised the end of innocence and new beginnings. After beginnings that involved the molestation of a young girl, homosexuality, and hints at a lesbian incestuous relationship (well sisters in law) and of course a rabbit that talks the main characters mum and dad with the lottery win, and move the family to the Seaside to set up a B&B.

Reading that back it seems not only very unbelievable but ridiculous and yet I didn't think so at the time I was reading it. I must admit it did take me a while to get into the book and even at the end I found that I didn't really warm to the main character. I keep referring to her as the main character as even now I'm not sure of her name (I know that's quite bad, hang on I will look it up...........Elly!). We discussed this at the meeting and a few of us thought the same, suggesting perhaps it was because she was the narrator and you warmed more to the other characters through her descriptions of them.

One thing we all loved were the characters found at the B&B - Arthur, Ginger and Ellys Auntie Nancy. They were so vivid and I so would have liked to have met them. The stand out moment for me in the book was Arthur and his coconut. I laughed out loud and won't spoil it for those of you have not read it by revealing all. This kind of compensated for the lack of warmth I felt for Elly and the second half of the book when they emerged certainly seemed to hold me more.

I mentioned above that the book in some way was all about new beginnings or fresh starts - the B&B for Ellys parents, her brother after 9/11, Ginger at the B&B. Yet nobody really got the chance to start again. Ellys dad never really escaped the client he failed, Ellys brother was never really allowed to find his new self due to Elly. It showed that no matter how you run unless you either leave behind all family/friends and, in Ellys dads case, your self/memories you never get the chance for a clean slate.

Jenny Penny was also an interesting character. I'm not sure what I made of her, her relationship with Elly and her whole prison sentence. We did discuss how likely it would have been that Jenny Penny remained in Ellys life (and indeed Charlie in her brothers life). I suppose this was yet another example of how fresh starts were just not allowed as characters kept coming back.

Sexuality or more specifically homosexuality was rife in the book and maybe that was why quite a few of us expected an incestuous relationship between Elly and her brother. We also thought at one stage that Elly and Charlie would get together after 9/11. We discussed the relationship between Ellys Auntie/Mother and Father and how a lot of things were hinted at so that when we came to discuss the book we were left saying things like 'was it just me or did that happen?'

The range was quite split for this book with it overall averaging a 6. Looking back it was totally unrealistic but for some reason you didn't question why the rabbit talked. I think the characters saved it. Just.

PS. I was also on the lookout for a repeat of the Quiet Belief in Angels meeting. No unexpected guests turned up but you will just have to read that blog to see what happened there if you don't know what I'm on about!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Book of Tomorrow Cecelia Ahern

Summer time (supposedly) so I suggested we read a summer book. Not a book set on a beach but the classic summer read - light hearted, and dare I say it chick lit. Gulp!

It was a bit of a risk asking a book club to review a book that normally, at least I, would steer clear of and perhaps some of us had preconceptions that were never going to be overcome.

The book wasn't your standard however. For a start it was told from a teenagers point of view about a teenager - not your normal career women who is disastrous in love then. It also started off with the main characters (Tamaras) dads suicide and Tamara and her mothers resulting bankruptcy and removal from the family home. Not your usual summer read by the pool huh?

The book then kind of took on your more usual chick lit format, introducing a love interest that had disastrous consequences. Yet it still twisted away from the norm by introducing The Book of Tomorrow. It was here that I think it lost some of us who found the concept of a book that predicts the future just one step too far. I didn't mind it actually, it wasn't the be all and end all of the book and if you just went with it rather than questioned how and why, it fit into the story quite well. Others in the group whlst not minding the appearance of the book didn't like the lack of explanation about it wanting a reason no matter how far fetched it was rather then the book just being presented to them and then being removed.

We all agreed that the underlying story about the hidden family history was quite interesting but was brought to an end quite quickly. I think some of us would have preferred the book to have been more focused on this side of things but then it wouldn't really have been a chik lit book.

I also find there is a certain style/theme that seems to come out with books based in Ireland. Maybe it comes from reading too many Maeve Binchy books but it always seem as though a nun has got to be present somewhere and Dublin has to feature!

We spent a bit of time talking about what we thought of reading a book from a teenagers point of view. This coupled with the magical element seemed on the face of it highly aimed at children. Did it manage to be an adult book? We thought it did although couldn't pin point exactly why. We discussed how it was unusual for a book from a teenagers point of view to be marketed as an adult book. There are a number of books (Harry Potter and Twilight being the main ones) that have teenagers as the lead characters and that have been popular with adults. But all of these were marketed first as childrens books. The Book of Tomorrow however (to my knowledge) never was.

Overall I think peoples minds had perhapsed been made up before they read this book proving that you do sometimes judge a book by its cover. It was disappointing but that was the risk I suppose. I found it delivered way more than your usual chick lit found free glued to your summer magazine and to lump it in that catogary is an insult to Ahern. This isn't the first Ahern book I have read and although I would say its probably the one I have enjoyed the least I wouldn't be put off from reading other ones.

Scores were far ranging this monthbut we levelled it out with a 6

PS for those of you who haven't realised Ahern was the author who wrote PS I Love You.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Help Kathryn Stockett

SORRY! I know it's been a while since my last post. I've no excuse so hopefully here goes 3 blogs in a row starting with The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I initially found the book very slow paced, in a way mirroring the way of life of the deep south where the book was set. The pace never really went up a gear and I think a couple of us found it took a little while to get into. Although despite its lack of pace we found that it crept up on us and made us want to read to the end.

Most surprising was the fact that the book, based around slavery was set in 1960s the very decade of freedom in England. It seemed so strange that this was going on such a short time ago. How white women would leave their children almost entirely in the hands of coloured women but wouldn't share a bathroom with them was such a bizarre thing to get your head round. We therefore spent a while talking about America in that time compared to England. We are lucky enough to have an American in our mist who was able to provide an extra angle to the conversation.

A book based on slavery naturally found us talking about freedoms in particularly the both sets of women in the book and how in many ways it was the coloured women who had more freedom and deeper friendships. The white women had to behave in a set way or were excluded from society. In times of trouble the coloured women pulled together such as when they clubbed together to send the twin boys to college

We also talked about the role of men in the book and how weak they were yet how despite this they were still deemed head of the house without question. Miss Skeeters boyfriend who either wasn't brave enough/or simply just didn't understand why Miss Skeeter would want to write a book about the Help. Minnys husband who resorted to beating her yet whom Minny wouldn't leave because he was her husband.

I was fascinated with Celias character. She must have thought she had made it when she escaped Sugar Ditch yet really had a worse time of it than the coloured women being totally shunned by the white ladies who thought her beneath them. She was tough, the episode with the stalker showed that. Yet her upbringing really made her innocent/naive about the class boundaries that Miss Hilly and Minny stuck so rigidly to. She just didn't see the reason why she couldn't simply be friends with Minny and whoever else turned up.

We did think the book had its weak points - we didn't believe the women would actually talk and the excuse Stockett gave for why they all eventually did was a bit flimsy. We also thought the explanation as to Constances disappearance was a bit wishy washy and did Miss Skeeters mother just get better from the brink of death?

We were interested as to how much the book mirrored the authors life. Stockett is from Mississippi, had a coloured maid, became a writer and moved away (Sound familiar?). Not much was revealed however as to whether any of the stories were true.

We awarded it a 7.25 with a quite narrow band of scores which meant that we all pretty much liked it.

Our next book is The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Slap/City of Thieves

So I missed my first book club as my husband booked me on a surprise holiday. Truth be I hadn't finished the book.
We were supposed to have read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. Its set in modern Australia and is supposed to delve into the repercussions of a grown man slapping a badly behaved boy at a family bbq.
I was put off from the first page and even though I stuck with it my first impressions were correct. The characters were vile, the language was terrible (swearing not grammar) and painted a depressing racist view of Australia. I am no prude but time and time again I felt uncomfortable reading it. I'm not sure whether this was because I was aware I was going to have to discuss it in front of ladies who (not wanting to offend anyone) are slightly older than me but there really was no need for the extent Tsiolkas went to. There wasn't a single character who you felt you could empathise with or that you were rooting for. I expected to be swinging from character to character as I read each characters point of view but I just found myself caring less the more I read.
I was looking forward to reading it. To choose the slapping of a child as a focus for the book left you thinking it was going to cover meaty issues kind of like Jodi Picoult and I was interested to read about Australia's social circles.
When it became obvious that this wasn't going to happen I thought it may be more 'court scene drama' but this didn't happen either. Tsiolkas seemed to want to hit on as many controversial topics as possible - rape, abortion, violence, sexuality, adultery, drug usage, alcoholism without actually delivering enough on any of them. This left the reader feeling disjointed and unsure as to what type of book they were actually reading.
The ending too was rather random but highlighted how Tsiolkas seemed confused himself as to how he wanted the book to pan out. The slap and its court room conclusion was kind of finished with half way through the book and you ended up instead following a boys coming of age story facing his estranged father and confronting his sexuality. Not what you expect from a book called The Slap!
I wasn't the only one to think like this and although I cant really comment on the meeting as I wasn't there I do know that there was actually an argument about scoring the book so highly by giving it a 4.
Taking into account all of the above I have more to say about The Slap than I do about the latest book City of Thieves by David Benioff . We all liked it but didn't really have much to say about it. The storey is based in Russia during World War 2 with the two main characters having to steal a dozen eggs for the Commanders daughters wedding or face certain death. It sounded like a brilliant story and was an enjoyable read
I've come to the conclusion however that there are certain books that are just not good book club books no matter how much you enjoy reading them you just can't take them apart like you can good book club books.
For example - The Hours - nobody particularly loved it yet we talked about if for ages and picked up on loads of points. With Thieves we discussed how I didn't like the beginning. It took away all suspense to the story. You knew he lived, he got the girl etc but then we stumbled finding anything else to discuss. In fact we talked more about TV and Kindles (3 members now have them with one on order!)
We did discuss how much of the story was based on truth as the descriptions were vivid and it was supposed to be Benioffs grandfather however the first Chapter does end with Benioffs grandfather saying 'You're the writer make it up". After the book club a member did email me to say she had been researching Benioff and emailed me this interesting link
As we enjoyed it so much we ended up giving it an 8 however if I was scoring it as a book club book I would have given it a much lower score. Something to bear in mind when choosing future books I suppose!
Next book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett
PS I left The Slap in my holiday lodge and wrote in side it when I read it and what I thought so if anyone ever comes across it I'd love to know!

Monday, 18 April 2011

Annual Review

Ok so book club is one years old (wow). First of all thank you so much for attending whether you came once or whether you have made it to almost every meeting. I appreciate you taking tie out of your lives to join little old me. There have been times when there were only 3 of us and times when we took over 2 tables. I've loved it all. A special thank you to Jonnie (I'm sorry I'm not sure how you spell it) for your help with the signs. They have been instrumental in keeping the book club going.

Anyway here is a quick review from me of the last year

worst book - I think almost unanimously The Road

Highest mark awarded - A Christmas Carol - but note it was only a festive 10

Book we keep coming back to/referring to - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, surprising given that it was the first book we reviewed.

Book that I liked the best (well it is my blog)- A Quiet Belief in Angels

Best book club book - The Hours, not necessarily the best book but the one that got us talking the most

Comedy moment - two ladies turning up to talk about Angels for the review of A Quiet Belief then staying to try to convince us it was worth talking about.

Most amount of people in attendance - 9 including one man!

Least in attendance - 3 but we ended up making it a good meeting regardless

Well that's it short but sweet, told you it was a quick review. Heres to another year!

The Hours Michael Cunningham

On the face of it The Hours is a very boring book.

It follows 3 seemingly unconnected women over the course of a day. It is set over 3 different periods of time in America and England. One woman is trying to write a book (Virginia Woolf), one is trying to bake a cake (Laura Brown) and one is trying to organise a party (Clarissa Dalloway). Clarissa is loosely based on Mrs Dalloway the Woolf character from the book by the same name. I am told the book is written in the 'stream of conscious' style where the reader follows the womens thoughts as they enter their head however random. Nothing much else happens.

Bit of a failure then really and that seemed to be the thoughts of about half the members at this months meeting.

However have book must discuss! So we delved in and discovered that when you look closely and pool ideas it suddenly becomes more interesting. Like a many layered onion that first appears only dull and brown. I liked that sentence it made me feel posh!

We discovered that all women who at first glance had nothing in common do in fact have a lot in common. For example all three are playing a role. Virginia as the sane wife who can write and run a successful household, Laura who is playing the perfect mother and Clarissa who is playing the perfect hostess. They all feel that they have to perform, to put on a brave face and they all feel like they are failing.

They are all trying to exert control over their lives by creating the perfect something - a book, a cake and a party. Do they see this as replicas of themselves and their lives? Clarissa seems more certain than others that the party will be ok is it because she is happiest with her life? Laura seems the least happy with her creation. Are they measuring up how perfect they are by what they produce? Is it their way of issuing some control? Was it always going to be not perfect in their eyes because they feel they are not perfect?

We were really warming up now questions and theories were being posed all over the place. Not so boring now hey? But wait there is more

All three have issues with Mental illness. Whereas Virginia looks on the face of it as thought she is the most obviously mentally disturbed one member of the group commented how it could be that she suffered from migraines. Indeed a lot of the descriptions we are offered would fit that diagnosis. Clarissa although not suffering herself is having to deal with her best friend Richard who is losing his mind to aids. Laura also seems to be suffering from some sort of depression, perhaps post natal depression? We then talked about whether the women were all suffering from illnesses that in todays environment would be treatable and recoverable from rather than dominating their lives. Looking to modern day just like Laura and Virginia are unable to escape their illnesses Richard despite modern medicine is unable to escape his.

The last link we found was lesbianism. All 3 either were openly or had some sort of lesbian encounter. Why? Is it because they feel they have to be perfect in front of the men and with women they don't?

We also discussed to what extent Clarissa was more free than the others. She to some extent shows you can have it all, a lesbian relationship, a child, an upper class life style with a glamorous circle of friends. But she lives in New York one of the most eclectic, accepting cities in the world. Would she have this freedom if she lived in say Richmond?

At last then a book club book that really was made for a book club. We ended up talking for ages and everyone said they actually got something out of the meeting, appreciating the book more. Some of us even increased the score they would have given it had it not been for the book club! Overall we gave it a 6. Some gave it as low as a 2 some as high as an 8. I seem to think that this book has split us the most score wise than any other previously. I think this is a good thing in a book club book.

Perhaps we got more out of this book because it is more wordy/high brow than others previously. Although it scored relatively low and I would say I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as most books I've read it's quite readable and I got way more out of it than most of our other books. Try it.

Next book is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

PS Check out my annual review!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Island Victoria Hislop

Despite a hip replacement we still managed a joint best ever 9 members this month including two new ones. I really must take time out to say thank you to Sainsburys for their notice board. Nearly every new member who comes to a meeting mentions the Sainsburys sign, they are one of the few places in Cramlington that allows us to put a sign up and it's free! Hooray for Sainsburys.

Anyway books!

Or perhaps two books as The Island certainly seemed to be a book of two halves. The book starts off with Alexis heading off on holiday complete with imperfect boyfriend and mysterious mother. Chick lit alert! Well I said to myself I can totally guess where this is going, of to Greece where she will meet some handsome hunk and imperfect boyfriend will be kicked to the curb.

Except no, suddenly we were transported to the 1940s where a whole different book emerged, with twists and turns, strong characters, and not a hint of Chick lit in sight. Nearly all of us thought that the Alexis part of the story was superfluous. It didn't add to the book and seemed as though Hislop couldn't think of a way to introduce the story she wanted to write and so copped out with Alexis.

The ending also seemed to dilute the Spinalonga part of the book. It wound the whole story up too quickly and again seemed to (dare I say it) whisper at Chick lit - with mother dropping everything to fly to Greece and after not being able to even mention Greece to her daughter previoulsy confesses all over a Greek salad.

It sounds like I'm slating this book so let me make it clear I'm not. I've even recommended this to friends who haven't previously read it. Why? Because of the Spinalonga part of the book The Island where people diagnosed with leprosy were sent to live leaving everything and everyone they knew behind.

It was in this part that any comparisons to Chick lit got completely blown away and a real vivid picture of Cretian life emerged. It was wonderful to read about Plaka, the roles everyone played in society, how life was back then, their traditions and their amazing fighting spirit - they were quite willing to single handedly fight the Germans when they invaded.

The characters themselves were also really powerful. Anna who everyone in the group wanted to give a good shake, Fontini who you wanted as a friend. I would say that they were a touch one dimensional - Anna from the beginning was trouble and never strayed from this path where Maria was a constant goody two shoes to the point of almost verging on martyrdom.

The description of life on The Island was good. The book passed through 3 generations and you were shown the progression of how The Island prospered from not even having a proper water supply to the point that the inhabitants were better off during the occupation than the actual inhabitants of Spinalonga. They had electricity, decent hospital, food and even movies!

We discussed the horrors of leprosy and how we didn't really know much about it but envisioned hideous disfigured old crones lurking in shadows. One of our group compared leprosy to HIV ie how initially sufferers were shunned, condemned and the misconceptions surrounding the disease where it was thought that merely touching someone would infect you.

For those of you who are interested Spinalonga is an actual place, there was an actual leper colony and you can now go on holiday to Plaka and take a day trip to Spinalonga.

We awarded the book an 8. For a few members it was second time around for this book and it seemed to reread favourably.

Next book is The Hours by Michael Cunningham

PS next month Book Club is one years old. Get the candle ready!

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Ok so everyones New Years Resolution in Cramlington must have been to join a Book Club as we had a record number of attendees including (fan fare please) our first male member!!!! How exciting. However that meant the pressure was now on for the meeting to be a success and for the book to have been good.

Let the mass reviewing commence;

The story was told from the point of view of Death. We all found it unusual for death to be portrayed as a character. I had only really ever come across this concept in the Disc World Novels by Terry Pratchett. Although I don't think that the book actually ever specifically stated we all believed Death to be a man. The text of the story was also unusual in that the story kept being punctuated by Death adding his own (see, I told you we viewed him as a man) comments. This style of writing left some of our group finding the beginning of the book difficult to get into

Death was an interesting character. He didn't seem to have any control over people dying and seemed to treat souls especially those of children with tenderness. One of our group suggested this idea of Death taking souls away was perhaps a German folklaw. Nobody was able to provide any confirmation of this and if anyone is able to do now please reveal!

I'm not sure whether it was because Death told the reader the outcome of the story early on or whether it was because the story was actually a childrens book (best seller) but although devastating things happened the reader was in some way sheltered. I didn't find myself on the verge of tears (although I think one or two of us did) and I thought I would have been considering who died (don't want to give the game away too much)

We all found it really interesting to read a book from the average German perspective as so many books (rightly so) focus on the horrors faced by the German Jews, or those in and around the Nazi Party. We all commented on the parallels to the average British person during the War such as the fears faced when in air raid shelters. However it also sharply showed the differences between the Germans and the British. The informers, neighbours v neighbours, Hitler Youth Camp and the fact that Liesel had to hide the fact that she was reading books!

We talked for ages about our favourite moments in the book of which there were many. One of my favourites was the snowman in the basement and how Liesel described the sky for Max the Jew hidden in their basement who hadn't even seen out of a window for over a year.

The central characters were strong vivid people who were loved by the reader and Zusak managed to invoke strong mental pictures such as Liesel and Papa painting words in the basement or learning to read in the middle of the night.

What we really wanted to know however was, did Liesel end up with Max? We're all suckers for happy endings! Zusak certainly left it slightly open for the possibility so I'm going to roll with it and say they did.

We spoke a little about where if anywhere, the author fitted into the story. In the preface at the beginning the reader is told that he lives in Australia and his name suggests he has some sort of German ancestry. He certainly couldn't be Max in the story as he isn't old enough however he mentions that Liesel went to live in Australia so perhaps she could be a relative or the story could have been loosely based around stories his relatives have told him? Purely speculation.

Anyway we gave it a well deserved 8.5 (one of us even awarded it a 10!) Our next book is The Island by Victoria Hislop. It's one that a few of us have read so it will be interesting to see what people get out of it second time round.

PS Hit we hit the nail on the head with Zusak.

Wonder how many of us stick to our resolutions next month?