Category Archives: bookclub

Book Review: The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a nostalgia trip back to a childhood in the 1970s. Ten year olds Grace and Tilly have the long, hot, heatwave summer of 1976 ahead of them. They need a project and they decide to find God. They know God is ‘everywhere’ (and each time they say this, they gesture around themselves, waving their arms around).

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blue wall. 

They have decided to find God because Mrs Creasy, a neighbour, has gone missing. This provides the central mystery to this easy to read, nostalgic trip. We quickly get to know the cast of characters who live on the same close as Grace. They know the ins and outs of each others lives and have been a close community for a long time. Very quickly we learn that a *bad thing* happened 10 years previously. This involves child abduction, the ‘weirdo’ at number 11, a house fire, and a death.

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gold glittery shoes

The themes get quite dark, but it’s handled in a very light way, made easier by most of it being told from the perspective of children. There are some very funny exchanges between the ten year olds and the adults. There are some lovely descriptions and a lot of personification is used. I liked this, it gave it an unusual feel, but felt cosy at the same time.

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reading at lunchtime amongst the desk debris.

This was a book club read, and most people really, really enjoyed it. I think the people who go the nostalgia hit for the 1970s liked it the most. I’m not a child of the 1970s, but its close neighbour the 1980s, and lots of the nostalgia was still relevant to me. Payphones and sherbet dip. A local who doesn’t fit in, sexism, and roller skates! It’s a quite light book, though it does deal with dark themes, it still feels like a bit of a break from reading *difficult* books, and a welcome one 🙂 I breezed through all 450 pages in a few days.

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Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

Sarah Dunbar is amongst the first black students to attend Jefferson High School, a previously all white high school, in segregated Virginia in 1959. Lies We Tell Ourselves takes us with these students on their hellish first few terms at Jefferson High. Sarah is a lesbian, and she falls badly for Linda Hairston, the white daughter of the most vocal opponent to school integration.

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In Lies We Tell Ourselves, these two girls on the opposite side of the civil rights battle, are drawn together by an attraction both of them wishes they didn’t feel.

This young adult book has a stunningly beautiful cover, the front has Sarah’s silhouette, the back has the silhouette of Linda on, and if you open up the book, they are looking at each other. As a book for young adults, it deals in a fairly light way with the awful nature of Sarah’s experience at Jefferson High. It is still upsetting, and she and the other black students are subjected to daily violence and abuse, but it stops short of the visceral type of description you get in adult books like The Underground Railroad.  This doesn’t stop it from being a really great, eye opening look at what these students must have been through and, in fact, the dedication, to the Norfolk 17, is a reminder that many real life children were on the front line in this hard fought battle.

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I liked the fact that Sarah and Linda are lesbians. I hardly read any books with LGBTQ+ characters, it’s lovely to find one where they are, and it’s not even the main part of the story. It’s important, and helps to change Linda’s mind about her stance on integration, and it’s clear that even though characters in the book disagree on integration, they all agree that being gay is WRONG. It’s important for Linda’s character to feel like she is different for some reason, and she questions just why feeling this way is wrong, and of course it isn’t and it’s just that she has been told it is wrong. This echoes what she has been told about integration, and of course she begins to question her life long held beliefs.

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Sarah, and her little sister Ruth, are amongst ten black students attending Jefferson High School. They are the brightest students from their old high school and have all volunteered to take on this task, though clearly wanting to please their parents takes a role in their decisions. They are put into remedial classes and they suffer terrible abuse every day. The whole school was closed for a term while the local authorities tried to stop the integration.

When you read about a topic, often you notice other references to the same topic cropping up in other areas of you life. While reading this book, I am also listening to the audio book of What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (not at the exact same time of course!). In What Happened, Hillary describes how she was sent undercover to schools, in 1964, to investigate their refusal to desegregate. She had to pose as the wife of a businessman moving to the area and quizzed school about their policies. Her evidence was used to then prosecute the schools. I can not wait to write my review of this book!

Lies We Tell Ourselves is a great young adult book. You get chapters from the viewpoints of both girls, and each chapter is titled by a lie the girl is telling herself in that chapter, for example: I hate her, or I’m not strong enough to do this. I loved that, and I really enjoyed this book!

Book review: Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a really quite long book about the 1840s Canadian murderess Grace Marks. She’s a real person, who was jailed for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, when she was 16. She is also thought to have murdered his lover, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s fictionalised version of this story, weaving the facts of the case with a constructed story of Grace and her life up to, and beyond the conviction.

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Reading at the bus stop on a very rainy night. 

I should point out that I quite enjoyed the story, but it’s definitely not really my sort of thing, and I wouldn’t have got through all 550 pages if it hadn’t been for a book club I go to. Having said that, most of the other people at book club absolutely loved it.

Margaret Atwood brilliantly builds up and creates the world that Grace inhabits. The detail about everything is rich and stunningly done. I never got bored of the descriptions it all helped put me right in Grace’s world. It has recently been made into a Netflix series and I think it will definitely be worth watching.

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Reading in my space pants. 

We meet Grace as a young girl in Ireland. Her family are poor, with lots of children and a feckless Father. They decide to begin a new life in America, and make the frankly horrendous journey over on a boat. During this trip, her Mother dies. Then Grace abandons her family after they settle in Canada, as a survival mechanism to get away from her abusive Father. From here she lives in as a house maid.

We follow Grace through several jobs, in different houses, until the terrible events that put her in jail. At this point she is still only sixteen years old. These recollections are told to a doctor, Simon Jenkins, who is studying Grace to try and make an assessment of her mind at the time of the crime. The whole book is centred around their meetings. I liked the character of Dr Jenkins, who is entirely fictionalised. While he tries to maintain a respectable, professional image to Grace, his personal life begins to break down. He’s under constant pressure from his family to settle down, and his letter exchanges with his Mother are excellent.

As one season’s crop of girls proceeds into engagement and marriage, younger ones keep sprouting up, like tulips in May. They are now so young in relation to Simon that he has trouble conversing with them; it’s like talking to a basketful of kittens.

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We learn about Grace’s friend, Mary Whitney, firstly through several quotes she uses to describe things in a very funny, but coarse way. She uses Mary’s quotes to say things she would never dare, as Grace is quite prudish. Mary is slightly older than Grace, and she assumes the big sister role that Grace so desperately needs. She teaches her the ways of the job and how to get along well in life. Later, we hear Grace’s story about Mary and learn a lot more about her. She is my favourite character, she has such spark.

Mary said I might be very young, and as ignorant as an egg, but I was bright as a new penny, and the difference between stupid and ignorant was that ignorant could learn.

Grace’s story is interesting, but this book is a triumph of describing the domestic situation of 1840s Canada. There’s also a, quite Victorian, supernatural element to the story. I would recommend it of you are interested in this time, or a fan of historical fiction with a factual basis. Probably if none of those things really appeal, I would wait for the Netflix show (it looks really good! see the trailer below)

Book Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading The Underground Railroad, although I did, because it’s subject matter is so harrowing, yet so important.  The experience of Cora, a plantation slave who tries to escape to the North, in civil war era USA, is heart breaking and captivating. The description of her time on the plantation was very difficult to read. It’s not that I was ignorant to what slavery must have been like, it’s just never been presented to me in such a visceral, clear way. The text feels so immersive to Cora’s daily life. It’s stark and awful. And you can not fail to make links with modern day America with this in their recent history.

When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.

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Colson Whitehead’s work is not an attempt to make a strictly factual account of slavery in America, but the experiences of the characters are firmly rooted in fact. The Underground Railroad is a physical underground railroad in this story, but in reality it refers to the network of moving escaped slaves around to get them out of the south and into the north, where slavery was illegal (sort of…).

After Cora escapes she makes several stops in different states, each state has a very different set up with regard to the treatment of slaves, or freed slaves. This set up of the different systems in each state is not historically accurate – but each thing described is something that happened – just not in the neat state by state way it appears in The Underground Railroad. For example, in one state there is secret medical testing on the black population. This reflects the experience of people much later on – but is still a thing that happened and is still yet another example of how freed people were not really free after all.

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Fitting a bit of reading in at lunchtime.

The Underground Railroad opens with Cora’s Grandmother Ajarry’s story. She is captured in Africa, and brought to America. I was glad that the slave ship had come from Liverpool because I think it’s too easy for British people to frame slavery as an American thing that we were nothing to do with.

Cora’s experience after leaving the plantation is of a life full of danger and uncertainty (as was her daily life on the plantation). I’m deliberately not going into the specifics of the situations she finds herself in, because I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than is necessary to discuss the main themes. She experiences freedom where she feels more restricted and confined that she ever did on the plantation. She questions what it means to be free (spoiler alert: she will never be free because of the society all around her). She feel responsible for tragedy that befalls most people who try to help her. She is frequently so close to danger and The Underground Railroad is a really gripping read in addition to being a great emotionally moving novel.

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Friday night reading. 

The Underground Railroad won this years Pulitzer Prize for literature. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but hasn’t made the shortlist. All I can say is the ones that did must be spectacular!

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Love this author picture at the back of The Underground Railroad. I like to think he’s thinking ‘my book is amazing, and now you know it too’. Hoorah!

I loved reading The Underground Railroad and would highly recommend it. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but the prose is not complicated. It’s going to be one of those novels that stays with me for a long time. This has to be the thing i remember about it the most though:

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.

Book Review: Hope in the Dark – Rebecca Solnit

The back of the book blurb says:

At a time when political, environmental and social gloom can seem overpowering, this remarkable work offers a lucid, affirmative and well-argued case for hope.

I’m already sold. Politics – mental. Check! Environmental predictions – dire. Check! Social issues – overwhelming. Triple check! I need this book right now. And I absolutely loved it. I’ve struggled to get this review written because I have felt like I’m not capable of conveying how brilliant it is. It’s made me feel hopeful about the future and like I can make a difference to the world. That’s some achievement for a book that’s only 142 pages long.

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That brew is perfect. Anyone who might make me a cup of tea in the future, please take note. 

I read most of Hope In The Dark during the week when we had actual white supremacist Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Donald Trump is the President of the United States. I still can’t see, hear, or read that without doing a huge internal WTF? They are fracking a few miles away from my house. People in positions of power are denying climate change. We are exiting the EU. And the Conservatives are in power a-frigging-gain. It’s ALL TOO MUCH. and that’s not even the half of it.

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Rebecca Solnit. Picture from https://umpsychogeography.wordpress.com/the-writer-as-walker/rebecca-solnit/

Hope In The Dark is a collection of 21 short essays. It was was written in 2004 in the wake of the second election of President Bush. Rebecca Solnit is American and so American politics are important to the book, but it covers global issues. The copy I read is a 2016 update and has a new foreward, a new afterward, and two new essays concerning 2009 and 2014. It falls cliffhangingly short of a Donald Trump presidency!

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The dark in the title of the book is the future. The dark is the unknown. It’s not that its dark and terrible, it’s just unknown. As she points out in the book, in the 1980s we couldn’t have predicted the internet in 20 years time, for example. We never know the future and so we can’t predict how our efforts will affect it. We should do things we believe are right, we should have hope that they can affect the future positively because they might, and probably will. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit gives us examples of when small acts of activism, that may have felt hopeless to the people involved at the time, have gone on to influence great changes in the world. Hope In The Dark is a call to arms to be more politically active and more engaged. It’s clear about how even small acts can have great effects.

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what we may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they all matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

 

The right and left of politics both come in for criticism. The right for getting their followers to focus on the wrong problem. i.e. countryside dwellers being most afraid of terrorism and crime even though statistically they are least likely to be affected. The left get it in the neck for focusing singularly on the biggest issues and therefore becoming so full of despair there is inaction. This criticism of the left was really useful to me. I’m good at seeing what the right do wrong already 🙂

Forgive me for not giving the full context of this next quote, but I love the phrasing:

the despairing were deeply attached to their despair, so much so I came to refer to my project as stealing the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.

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Reading some of Hope In The Dark at Bluedot Festival 

The stories covered are global and I read a lot of Hope learning about world issues from the last 20 years that I either didn’t know anything about, or only had vague knowledge of. I’m deliberately not going into too much detail here, because I want you to go and read it for yourself! I could never do it justice here.

… hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch , feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.

I’ve concentrated so far on the political aspects of Hope In The Dark, but the environmental parts rang true for me as well. I’m concerned about climate change and our global response to it, and it’s heartening to read about some environmental successes around the world. There is a fracking site a few miles from my house and this is a massive concern. Reading about some successful American campaigns against fracking was really encouraging.

It’s always too soon to go home.

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Yes, a fish finger butty. Food of the Gods. 

I badly want to read an update written even more recently with Rebecca Solnit’s take on the Trump presidency. In fact, maybe that exists out there somewhere… *checks internet and wins*. I’m going to see her talk at Manchester Literature Festival in October and I can not wait. Her new book on feminism has just been released – The Mother Of All Questions: Further Feminisms, a follow up to Men Explain Things To Me (my review here. Guess what I LOVED THAT TOO).

Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.

Thank God Rebecca Solnit is a prolific writer because I just want to read everything she’s written. I saw this on Caroline Criado-Perez‘s twitter and I totally agree!

 

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This is the sort of book that I wished I had an extra secret higher level of recommendation to give it. I LOVED it. It’s exactly what you need if you feel despair with current politics, current environmental issues, or social issues (i.e. everyone, surely?!?) Please read it!!!!

We are not who we were not very long ago.

 

Book Review: The Seed Collectors – Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors is a magical book about complex family relationships and the seeking of enlightenment. The Gardener family are mostly botanists – we learn about five generations of them. Three members of one generation went missing during the search for a mysterious, deadly plant that is rumoured to be a short cut to achieving enlightenment.

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The Seed Collectors on Blackpool Prom.

Despite the whole enlightenment thing, which might not be your cup of tea (things like that generally aren’t really mine), it’s really a story of relationships. The Gardener’s could be generally thought of as rich, self-centred and interesting. Oh, and fairly obsessed with sex.

The cast of characters is a little overwhelming, but a few highlights are Beatrix: The oldest living Gardener. She likes investing in fashion brands and watching pornography on her computer. Her son, Augustus, who sadly doesn’t appear much.

The main characters are the children of Augustus and his generation. Charlie – ultra controlled and paleo loving, Clem – an acclaimed wildlife documentary maker. Their cousin Bryony – completely uncontrolled when it comes to eating, drinking and spending money, simultaneously devastated by her size. Another main character is Fleur – daughter of Briar Rose, one of the missing, and taken in by the family. She has worked for free learning how to run the hippy retreat in the family mansion. And don’t forget the Robin who lives in the garden of the mansion, he narrates a few chapters!

There are so many children, spouses, friends and colleagues, and the relationships are even more complex than you originally think. You get a family tree at the start of the book, and an updated one at the end. It was really useful because it took a while to figure out how this myriad of people were connected. There’s so many of them you only get a brief visit to some which seems a shame. I think you might have been able to lose some without much damage to the story and it might have made it less unwieldy.

Oleander’s funeral is the opening chapter of the book and some of the strange items inherited are key to the story of the mystical, mysterious plant the older Gardeners were looking for when they disappeared, presumed dead. Oleander is an older relative who runs the hippy retreat Mansion.

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I enjoyed The Seed Collectors as a bit of escapism. I liked going into this world of rich, selfish people who basically destroy their own lives and those around them by their awful behaviour! It’s not a difficult read, and it’s hilarious in many parts. There’s a short sex scene towards the end of the book that was so awful, it was funny. Awful because of the characters behaviour, not awfully written.

Interestingly, this was a book club choice and we met yesterday to discuss it. Only 2 of us, out of 12 or so, liked it! Many hated it so much they didn’t finish.

Have you read The Seed Collectors? What did you think?

 

Book review: Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Oh my god. I just don’t give a shit about the pheasant chicks, or the brambles in the allotment, or the hawthorn bush, or the fieldfares in the meadow. Reservoir 13 has 13 chapters, each spanning a year in the life of a Peak District village. It opens with the disappearance of a 13 year old visitor to the village, Becky, or Bex, or Rebecca. She is lost on the moors and no trace of her is found.

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The disappearance is revisited fairly often in the following chapters. A lot of them ending with a statement about her disappearance. There is repetition between the 13 chapters as the girl is still missing, her whereabouts unknown, but life still has to move forward.

We slowly get to know a lot of characters in the village. Some move on, some move in. Relationships start, and relationships end. We get snippets of village life. After around 8 years worth of tiny fragments of village life I started getting who everyone was. They often do the same things year after year because that’s what people do.

Almost every other sentence is a statement about what the natural world is doing at that time of year. Good god, it was tedious.

At first I wondered if I wasn’t enjoying it because I was listening to an audio book version of it. I’ve never really done audio books (except the Harry Potter series about 10 years ago when I had a particularly long commute to work) but the kindle version and paper book versions were really expensive, so I’ve got an audible trial. I needed to read it this week because it’s my book club read and we are meeting this week (review will be published as we meet!). I’m now really glad I didn’t read this myself because looking at some reviews, there are hardly any paragraphs and speech isn’t distinguished from any other text?!

Other reviews of Reservoir 13 are full of praise. I just can’t join in. I’m so glad it’s over and feel a bit mad that I wasted my time on it. Perhaps I’m supposed to see something deeper. The reviews would have you believe that you really should. Well, I obviously like my fiction to be upfront and interesting at face value. I don’t want hidden depth behind a boring story.

I need to add in something positive… at least I know what a fieldfare is now.

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**spoiler alert**

 

You don’t even find out what happened to the girl. There is no story, no protagonist, nothing. It’s a monotonous, repetitive soap opera about some ordinary village folk who basically have the most depressing lives.

Urghhh