We know how everyone loves a good book list and so here is a list of all the books we have read in the group so far. We have gone with what the blurb said vs. what we thought. All scores out of ten are based on an average of the group’s individual scores.
Latest reads for … 2012
The Curfew by Jesse Ball
William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.
This is a book by a young American writer that benefits from group discussion. We enjoyed the dreamlike prose and the universal truths scattered throughout the narrative. We found it a very quick but throught-provoking read and were impressed by the author’s ability to craft a story that feels timeless and rootless. Some of us thought it felt like translated fiction; we would be hard pressed to say it was American unless we knew the nationality of the writer beforehand. And while the narrative lulled us into a false sense of security, this is a book about violence, murder and unexplained “disappearances”. While we all generally loved the book, there were some who felt you had to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the cutting-edge, experimental nature of it.
The choice of: Armen
Group rating: 8
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
Inner-suburban Melbourne in the 1970s: a world of communal living, drugs, music and love. In this acclaimed first novel, Helen Garner captures the fluid relationships of a community of friends who are living and loving in new ways. Nora falls in love with Javo the junkie, and together they try to make sense of their lives and the choices they have made. But caught in an increasingly ambiguous relationship, they are unable to let go – and the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip.
This Australian classic, first published in 1977, was universally disliked by the group. While we appreciated it as a “snapshot in time” and enjoyed Garner’s beautiful prose and her depiction of a destructive relationship, we were less enamoured of the dull storyline and the bed-hopping, drug-taking habits of the characters. We found the narrator self-indulgent, annoying and hypocritical. And we all wondered how on earth she was supporting herself, a child and a junkie boyfriend, not to mention the frequent road trips to NSW and Tasmania, when she didn’t appear to have a full-time job!
The choice of: Kim
Group rating: 4
The White Shadow by Andrea Eames
Tinashe is a young Shona boy living in a small village in rural Rhodesia. The guerilla war of the late 1960s haunts the bushlands, but it only infrequently affects his quiet life; school, swimming in the river, playing with the other kids on the kopje. When his younger sister, Hazvinei, is born, Tinashe knows at once that there is something special about her. Their life in the village, once disturbed only by the occasional visits of his successful uncle and city cousin, Abel, now becomes entangled with the dual forces of the Shona spirit world and the political turmoil of the nation. As Tinashe, Hazvinei and Abel grow older, their destinies entangle in ways they never expected. Tinashe is prepared to follow his sister anywhere – but how far can he go to keep her safe when the forces threatening her are so much darker and more sinister than he suspected? Andrea Eames weaves together folklore and suspense in this compelling tale of a boy struggling to do the right thing in an unpredictable world.
This second novel by African-born author Andrea Eames was well liked by the group. While some pointed out the inconsistencies in characterisation and voice, we all enjoyed the evocative, fable-like nature of Eames’ prose and her ability to bring rural Africa to life in her descriptions of the heat, the dust and the poverty. We also loved the portrait of childhood she delivered and the way in which she managed to convey the difficulty of being a woman in this society without banging us over the head with gender politics. We were also fascinated by the folkore and magic that Eames weaves into the storyline, even though we were slightly puzzled by the ending. The group would also have liked to have known more about the political situation which was only mentioned in passing.
The choice of: this book was offered to us by the publisher Harvill Secker.
Group rating: 7
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
Maxwell Sim seems to have hit rock bottom. Estranged from his father, newly divorced, unable to communicate with his only daughter, he realizes that while he may have seventy-four friends on Facebook, there is nobody in the world with whom he can actually share his problems.
Then a business proposition comes his way – a strange exercise in corporate PR that will require him to spend a week driving from London to a remote retail outlet on the Shetland Isles. Setting out with an open mind, good intentions and a friendly voice on his SatNav for company, Maxwell finds that this journey soon takes a more serious turn, and carries him not only to the furthest point of the United Kingdom, but into some of the deepest and darkest corners of his own past.
In his sparkling and hugely enjoyable new book Jonathan Coe reinvents the picaresque novel for our time.
A good discussion was had by all — or so I imagine, because I wasn’t there to record what went on. This was our second foray into Jonathan Coe’s back catalogue.
The choice of: Dom
Group rating: TBA
In one of the most celebrated debut novels of recent years, Ross Raisin tells the story of solitary young farmer, Sam Marsdyke, and his extraordinary battle with the world. Expelled from school and cut off from the town, mistrusted by his parents and avoided by city incomers, Marsdyke is a loner until he meets rebellious new neighbour Josephine. But what begins as a friendship and leads to thoughts of escape across the moors turns to something much, much darker with every step.
We had a genuinely animated discuss about this fascinating and quite dark book set in Yorkshire.
The choice of: Claire
Group rating: 7
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys’s late, literary masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s. Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage the rumours begin, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
There were only four of us present to discuss Jean Rhys’ short but compelling novel, which was first published in 1966. We all loved the story, despite agreeing that the first part was a little confusing. We thought Antoinette was misunderstood and that her husband was quite a cruel man.
The choice of: Polly
Group rating: 9
A Perfectly Good Man, by Patrick Gale When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest – the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous.
The choice of: Anirban
Twelve, by Jasper Kent On 12th June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armee forded the River Niemen and crossed the Rubicon – its invasion of Russia had begun. Charged with delaying the enemy’s inexorable march on Moscow, a group of Russian officers summon the help of the oprichniki, a band of mercenaries from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe. As rumours of a plague travelling west from the Black Sea reach the Russians, the Oprichniki – twelve in number – arrive. Preferring to work alone, and at night, they prove brutally, shockingly effective against the French. But one amongst the Russians, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is unnerved by the mercenaries’ ruthlessness…and as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they’ve unleashed in their midst…
The choice of: Sakura
The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
The choice of: Group selection
Group rating: 8 / 10
Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroineof The Observations – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
What the group thought (summary by Miranda):
The Observations prompted a lot of interesting discussion. We all agreed the bleak and isolated setting, as well as the novel’s ghostly undertones were well suited to the time of year.
Most people seemed to enjoy the novel. Criticisms centered on parts of the story being slow-paced and initially a little hard going. One reader felt that Harris had not entirely succeeded in capturing a sense of time and place, with expressions used that could be appropriate in the present day. Many agreed the supposed ‘twist’ to the plot was a little unsatisfactory.
In general, the feedback was positive. There was much discussion on many of novel’s central themes of gender, race, isolation and loyalty. We agreed that it was a remarkably accomplished first novel and that its greatest strength was the wonderfully endearing protagonist, whose brilliant turn of phrase and street-smart humour was appreciated by all. Harris is certainly incredibly talented at capturing narrative voice and at bringing even the most minor characters fully alive through vivid description. Finally, the protagonist’s love of language and growing empowerment through written expression touched a cord with all of us and gave the novel timeless relevance.
The choice of: Miranda
Group rating: 8 / 10