A short blog about a long list

Every year at around this time, the Man Booker Prize Long List is published. Thirteen new fiction books, each and every one selected to push you to your limits as a reader. All with engaging titles and eye-catching covers that scream out Pick Me! Read Me!

Covers of Man Booker 2016 long list

The long list is for the real die-hards, here’s what I fancy this year:

  • The Many – Wyl Menmuir’s novel is my top choice because it is by a first time author who had just completed a creative writing course when he wrote the book, and it was written from a campervan on the Cornish coast. It is seriously the underdog entry.
  • Hot Milk – Deborah Levy. I cannot wait to read this. It explores the cross over between a daughter’s over-developed sense of responsibility towards her mother, and her need to take risks and live her own life. And I love the cover.
  • Serious Sweet  – A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sounds like just my kind of book: two characters (with all the first world  flaws we know and love) find one another in London. He’s a ‘bankrupt accountant’, she’s ‘shakily sober’. Together they do their best in a world intent on doing its worst.
  • The Schooldays of Jesus – J.M. Coetzee. A South African-born writer who has already won the Booker prize twice. He’s the heavyweight of the list. This novel (a sequel to The Childhood of Jesus) is about growing up, parenting and life choices. It’s allegorical writing, so don’t read too much into the cover – chances are that’s not Jesus learning to pirouette at a dance school.

As I bash out this blog on the keyboard, I swear I can feel the sinking of the collective heart of all my book club ladies over the years. Long have they loathed my Man Booker choices. When pushed they will give me the ‘too’ list: Too weird, too literary, too boring, too obscure, too depressing. “Nonsense” I retaliate, “Man Up”!

The long list has a short life span. Soon it will be culled from this baker’s dozen, to the six of the short list and finally down to the eventual winner. And at least a couple of these lovelies are sure to make it into a book group near you!

It’s more exciting than rugby. No really, I’m not kidding, it is!

Around the Book Groups: October

The All Girl Filling Stations Last ReunionIf September was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reading month, October veered more towards Little Red Riding Hood. The Innocent Reader and the lurking Big Bad Wolf both played their part this month.

It all started innocently enough with Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Set in Alabama, Southern Belle Sookie (and her equally weirdly named daughters), seems set for a peaceful retirement. Then, out of the blue, she is hit by a life crisis of epic proportions. It’s not scary, more Sookie skipping through the forest with a basket of sweet nothings while WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) planes pirouette overhead. If you are after a happy-ending holiday read, this may be the tickety-boo (as Sookie might say).

Black Rabbit HallBlack Rabbit Hall, on the other hand, is all about the setting. Not a forest in this case, but a building. The story starts ominously and just ratchets the tension up from there on in. Could a building possess a more dysfunctional presence is the big question? And why would anyone want to get married there? But Lorna does. And she wasn’t the only one to be lured in by this brooding ruin. Tragedy, ghosts, hidden secrets and an ominous atmosphere ticked all the boxes for one of my book groups this month.

Colorless Tsukuru TazakiBut my best book group read of the month – in fact now one of my best books of the year – is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. If you have so far run screaming through the woods away from  Murakami, this book (along with his novel Norwegian Wood) makes for a very accessible starting point. Imagine this – your four best friends suddenly dump you with no explanation when you are in your early twenties. Eventually, in order to save your sanity,  you decide to track them down to find out why this happened. It is a subtly tense read – absolutely gripping.

It was a month in which false identities “What big eyes you have grandma”, dark foreboding surroundings and lurking unease made up a terrific trio of book group reads. Whatever will November bring?

Around the Book Groups: September

Had Goldilocks been a bit less piggy and slothful, she might have raised her eyes to the bookshelves of the three bears, grabbed a read, and initiated a discussion with them when they returned – thereby founding the first book group in history.

But she did not, leaving us instead with the Holy Trinity of comparisons: too hard; too soft; just right. Here’s how my five book groups responded to some of our reads in September:

Cover of PlainsongThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin tells the story of a lone bachelor on an isolated farm, whose peace is disturbed by the arrival of two feral, pregnant teenage girls. It was described by one Book Group member as “like reading a silent movie”. It is tonal, descriptive and almost dialogue free. I can’t help but compare it with the (in my opinion) superior Plainsong by Kent Haruf. A book that also explores the theme of lone bachelors and (in this case) a single pregnant teenage girl. Don’t read them one after the other.

Cover of Rich Man RoadRich Man Road by Ann Glamuzina is a New Zealand novel set in Auckland. The title is a play on the words Richmond Road, which the two main characters – both new immigrants – have difficulty in pronouncing. This book is proving to be very popular in one of my book groups. I however, stopped reading it after 50 pages. I blame the fact that it is a book that starts at the end of the story – thereby subjecting the reader to a further 250 pages of explanation. I will mention here that both main characters are nuns. It has been a bit of a nunnish month, as you will see.

Two further nun books have crossed my path in the past couple of months – and not any old nuns I will have you know – Anchoresses. I enjoyed The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. A novel about a spiritual young woman who chose incarceration in a cell attached to a church to avoid marriage  may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it is a well done piece of fiction.

Cover of IlluminationsBut nuns were not finished with me yet, as a completely separate book group had as their read of the month – Illuminations by Mary Sharratt which tells the fictionalised, but authentic tale of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who was tithed to the church as an Anchoress when she was 8 years old. We blew very hot and icy cold on this book. Comments ranged from “It has changed my life” to “An atrocious read“. Hildegard is a fascinating character, but I did not complete this book either. In my bones I feel that this is a case of a book about a great person, but this, unfortunately, does not make it a great book.

Cover of Up Against the nightFinally, a distinctly mannish change of direction with Justin Cartwright‘s latest novel: Up Against the Night. I am a huge Cartwright fan and have read every book he has written. He is an intelligent author who can tackle serious themes (in this case the complexity that is South Africa today) in an accessible and entertaining way.

This is not his best book. Reading, in parts,  like a travelogue of the beauties of the Cape, it details a looming act of violence told from the viewpoint of a character who just has to be based on Cartwright himself. All the interesting stuff comes from the least well-adjusted character (who speaks in broken South African English – not sure how that is going to fly). I was bored witless by Nellie the partner of the main character. So perfect, so beautiful, so nice, so accomplished. Give Me A Break. Despite the foreboding violence, parts of this book are laugh out loud funny. But do you have to be South African to get it? That is the question.

I can’t remember when last we all agreed on a book in any book group I have ever belonged to, but A Man Called Ove must come pretty close. We all loved it.

Or as Goldilocks would say: Just Right!

Four reasons to join a Library Book Group

Did you know there are many Book Discussion Scheme book clubs meeting once a month in different libraries all over town?

One good reason to join a book group you get to meet new people. Many book groups start with a group of already established friends but there is much to be said for joining a group of people from different backgrounds – your book list will reflect diverse interests.  Another reason –  you will read books you don’t normally read. Some books you’ll love and some you may leave you conflicted. Did I like that? Is that really how people behave? Does the author really bring a true account of the period? Are the characters rendered realistically? We learn and grow in knowledge and what better place to do that than in a library. Every second Wednesday of the month our Central Library Peterborough book group meets at midday.

The Madonnas of Leningrad book cover The Mermitage 250 Masterworks Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 Leningrad cover

This month’s title The Madonnas of Leningrad is all about the Siege of Leningrad through the eyes of Marina, a guide at the State Hermitage Museum. It become clear her children have never understood this period of her life which has shaped the person she is. We see how much is hidden inside ourselves. You would think a book about the dehumanizing effects of war would be depressing yet it shows the resilience of mankind and the importance of finding beauty to the human spirit.

As her granddaughter looks to her future and prepares to marry. Marina is spending more and more time in her past due to the ravages of Alzheimers. She begins to rediscover the world seeing it anew as a child might, everthing new and wondrous. Borrow The Madonnas of Leningrad yourself or download an eBook  from Overdrive, take a look at the Hermitage’s masterpieces and listen to Shostokovich’s Seventh Symphony which was composed during the siege from our Naxos Music Library and read Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor inspired by these events. There’s plenty more to read if you like Russian historical fiction or you might like Still Alice for another novel exploring what it means to have Alzheimers (it is also available as an Overdrive eBook).

The Crimson Rooms book coverIf evenings are more your thing, every second Tuesday of the month our group meets at six o’clock at Central Library Peterborough. This month we are reading The Crimson Rooms by Katherine McMahon set just after World War One as women’s roles are changing. The main character is a feisty lady lawyer is juggling the demands of family against her independence. This detective novel is a good clean read.

Last month we read A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, a veA Guide to the birds of East Africary Alexander McCall Smith-like novel on ethics of competition and courtship. This book is a real treat with a great insight to human behaviour. Even if you are no avid bird watcher you may find you are intrigued to find out more about the birds of Africa to see if these birds truly caricature some of these characters! Listen to their calls while reading for something really atmospheric from our Smithsonian Global Sounds for libraries.

Why not join our book group at Central Library Peterborough or look for book groups and author events on our calendar at other libraries around the city.

Do you belong to a library book club? What are you reading this month?

When last did a book make you cry?

Moloka'iMy answer to that question is: last week – which is when I started reading Moloka’i.

Set in Hawaii in the 1890’s, Moloka’i tells the story of the scourge of leprosy on the island’s inhabitants. In particular it is the life story of Rachel, a child of only seven, who contracts the disease and is banished to a leprosy settlement on the island of Kalaupapa. Here she is utterly confused, surrounded by terrifyingly disfigured patients and separated from her beloved family.

Are you crying yet?

Moloka’i is exactly the sort of book I usually avoid: vaguely historical, set in a place I don’t know and don’t really want to know, with a child protagonist and about a disease that I fear in a kind of primitive, medieval way. Why then am I reading it? Two words for you: Book and Club. And say what you will about Book Groups, they do get you out of fossilized reading holding patterns.

Three StoriesAfter a few chapters of this Alan Brennert novel, I was too miserable to sleep. The only book antidote that I had on hand was J.M. Coetzee’s Three Stories. If you have read any of Coetzee’s work, like The Life and Times of Michael K or Disgrace (he was the first writer to ever win the Booker Prize twice with these two works), you will be agog that anyone would consider his writing cheering.

But Coetzee has mellowed. In the three stories in this little book he considers, in this order: the improbability of loving a house; the sorrow of loving a land and the something of loving a parrot (I may have to read that one again.) But I did read all 70 pages of Three Stories and drifted off to sleep in a most satisfactory manner.

How about you – which books have made you cry? And which have soothed your troubled brow?

Lionel Shriver on book clubs

Book groups are a social phenomenon. In this excerpt from Roberta Smith’s interview with Lionel Shriver, you can hear Shriver’s thoughts on book clubs and how they bridge the gap between the solitude of reading and ordinary socialising.

What do you think – would you ever join a book group? Could there be a bloke’s book group?  Discuss!

Making your book group a winner!

The kings last song
The king's last song

Following on from the session in the Writers festival about the Orange prize, I stumbled upon this article on the Guardian Unlimited blog.  The Orange Prize not ony deals with award winning books and funding towards Literary and Educational causes, it also hands out prizes for the best Book Group in the UK.  The winner for this year themes its food and venues to the books it reads.

13 members dined on deep fried crickets when reading Geoff Ryman’s Cambodia-set The King’s Last Song, eyeball gobstoppers when discussing Michel Faber’s hitchhiker horror Under the Skin, and chocolate fountains and champagne for Jeanette Winterson’s erotic novel Written on the Body.

This group also likes to match the venues in which they meet to the books they are reading.

meeting in a pub below the Forth Road Bridge when discussing The Thirty-Nine Steps. Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions saw members dressing up as characters from the book. “After a few glasses of wine it’s quite fun, and it brings more to the books as it makes us fully experience them,”

So I’m thinking now about ways in which all you book group members could spice things up a bit?   How about a Japanese theme for Memoirs of a Geisha, combat fatigues for Catch 22, eat in the foodhall at Westfields when discussing What was lost, Lord of the rings could benefit from a trip to middle earth, and big bloomers would be mandatory when Bridget Jones’s Diary features. The list could be endless, and other suggestions?

Not a book group groupie

Secret scripture
Secret scripture

Are you a book finisher or a giver-upper?  I used to be a dedicated finisher, I would plough my way through long tiresome books, hoping that soon something would happen to make this all worth while – and sometimes it worked.  Shipping News by Annie Proux took me ages to get into, but I’m glad I perservered.  Margaret Atwood’s The Blind assassin and A S Byatt’s The Biographers Tale were two that took their time to impress me – in fact I think I enjoyed both of them more in hindsight!  However of late I have gone off the practice of finishing, and find myself sighing and tossing the book aside if it is failing to impress.  My latest giver upper has been Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.  It’s had good reviews, but somehow I couldn’t care about the characters and it’s gone on the growing pile of the “not read”! 

This may explain part of my problem with Reading groups.  I have belonged to, and left three!  With each one I have struggled with the idea of reading a book that has to be read, (even if it is one I have willingly chosen myself). I get a feeling of having to read, which somehow takes away the pleasure.  Even the copious amounts of wine and socialising can’t persuade me that reading groups are my thing.  I like to read a book and savour it – on my own,  and I hate it when someone doesn’t like something that I absolutely adored.  Equally as a non finisher, I would often find myself with nothing to say except a lame, “I didn’t like it”.  No reasons, no thoughts or ideas to back me up, just a shrug of my shoulders and a hasty gulp of wine.

If you belong to a fabulous reading group (and I’m sure many people do), then I envy you, but you can breath a sigh of relief because I won’t be knocking at your door wanting to join in the fun!