January – Milkman

Well, I was definitely set for this month. I received three copies of Milkman as gifts for my Birthday and Christmas. This is definitely the book of the year, the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018 has been praised to the heavens, so it seems like a great choice for the first book club of 2019.

Milkman – Anna Burns

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It is a long time since I have read a book that challenged my stamina this much. Four times, FOUR I seriously considered putting it down and never ever picking it up again, and I’m still not sure why I didn’t do just that. Anna Burns writes without the use of paragraphs, which makes the reading more difficult than it need be. The book is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles (the late 1970s) and is a stream of consciousness narrative, which reads as the repetitive ramblings of an 18-year-old girl who cannot gather her thoughts well enough to just tell her story. The narrator goes off on a tangent regularly and then comes back full circle many pages later, leaving you wondering ‘what was the point of all that then?’ I gave up trying to find the point halfway through the book when it became clear that most of the narrative was utterly irrelevant.

The characters are given no names, they are instead given short descriptions such as: ‘middle sister’, ‘maybe boyfriend’ and ‘third brother in law’, this in itself was not a problem, but coupled with the repetition, long rambling prose and the lack of paragraphs and punctuation made for an overcomplicated read. I don’t know why I continue to buy books that won literary prizes, as more often than not I am left wondering what criteria the books were judged on. With Milkman, it’s possible that it won the Man Booker Prize because of the unusual style of writing, which I did not enjoy at all, or it could be that it fits with the ‘me too’ movement that is very relevant this year.

Whatever the reason, I would never have given this book an award, it is ‘The Emporer’s new clothes’ in a book, and I for one am happy to stand up and shout ‘THERE’S NOTHING THERE!’ It’s one of those books you know it’s going to take weeks to finish if you can even be bothered to finish it at all. I gave the book 2* but I’m not sure it deserves that to be honest. The group rated it from 2* to 3.5*, read it if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Human Acts – Han Kang

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I like Han Kang, her stories are a little dark and her writing deep and philosophical, having read ‘The vegetarian’ and loved it, so I was looking forward to reading this. This book is not an easy read, in May 1980, a student uprising in Gwangju, in a far south region of South Korea, was brutally repressed by the military government. A young man, Dong-ho is part of the demonstration. He is there along with a friend. When the soldiers start shooting, people start running in every direction. He is separated from his friend but he can see a bullet going through his ribs, Dong- ho then finds a place to shelter before setting out to find his friend. Human Acts does not break the reader in gently, starting with the horror of many unidentified dead bodies and the people desperately searching through them to find their missing family and friends.

The novel manages to convey the utter horror of one of the most infamous incidents in South Korean history. The Gwangju Uprising was bloody and brutal, there are 800+ bodies buried now in the memorial cemetery in Gwangju, and until I read this book I knew absolutely nothing about any of this. Gwangju is Han Kang’s hometown and she tells the story of that uprising from the deeply personal perspective of victims and survivors and, most poignantly, the mother of a 15-year-old boy who was shot by soldiers during the chaos. The book is well written and incredibly hard-hitting and I would definitely recommend this heartbreaking story. I gave the book 4*, as did the rest of the group, it is definitely worth a try.

Happy Reading!

Mel 🙂

 

 

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November – The Chaperone

Curling up on a cozy chair with a blanket, a latte and a good book is what winter is made for. November is where it begins…

Laura Moriarty – The Chaperone

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At first glance, it is easy to assume that The Chaperone is a book about Louise Brooks from the perspective of the woman tasked with looking after her. Surprisingly, this is not the main story in the book, it is really the story of a woman (Cora Carlisle) who uses the role of chaperone for Louise Brooks to delve into her own past. Taking Louise to New York gives Cora the opportunity to explore a part of her childhood that she has long since left behind her. Cora also has a chance to explore the New York that was out of her reach as a young child, and in contrast to her life in the city.

The most interesting storyline in the book is Cora’s relationship with her husband. I am not going to go into depth as I don’t want to spoil the story, but it is incredibly interesting for the reader, as it is far from straightforward. Louise is painted as smart, sassy, sexy and just a little bit too full of attitude for a teenager in the 1920’s, but as you read on there is a sadness about her that is hard to ignore, and I found myself feeling sorry for her and for the lack of love and guidance from her parents. The task of chaperoning Louise is not an easy one, but Cora strikes a good balance between guardian and confidant, allowing Louise a little freedom, but reigning her in when needed.

I loved this book because I lost myself not only in New York in the 1920’s, but also in Cora’s life, both present and past. I was so totally lost in the story, that I read it over two days and it was just perfect for a cold Autumn weekend. The book explores the themes of racism, sexuality, relationships, ageing, poverty and neglect in a well-written thought-provoking story, that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a book to give them a great big hug. I gave the book 4.5*, the group rated it an average 3.5* so it was not for everyone, but it is one that I am very glad I chose it because it was just what I needed.

John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps

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Being a Hitchcock fan, I was really looking forward to reading this book. The story is set just prior to the outbreak of the great war, and Richard Hannay arrives home one evening to find a stranger on his doorstep, the man is in trouble and fears for his life, so Hannay takes him in. The following day he returns home to find the man dead and fearing for his own safety, he dupes a milkman, borrowing his outfit to escape unseen by the killers.

Hannay goes on the run to Scotland, presumably because Buchan is Scottish and therefore found writing Scotland easier than sending his hero off to Norfolk. The majority of the book is the story of Hannay on the run, evading the ‘bad guys’ and attempting to find out why the stranger in his home was killed. The adventure is good, although the hero is somehow able to slip in to and out of danger with the greatest of ease and at times and with incredible luck, that after a while just gets silly.

I enjoyed the book for several reasons, firstly it was short, therefore there were no rambling descriptions and the story kept my interest. Secondly it did have an element of danger and I’m a sucker for Hitchcock/Agatha Christie, lastly, it entertained me, I actually enjoyed the ridiculousness of Hannay’s James Bond-like luck, it made me smile. I gave the book 4* and the others gave it 2.5* – 3.5*

Happy Reading

Mel x

December – Water for Elephants

Aaaargh I didn’t manage it! I put Water for Elephants on the list because I read it 5 years ago in another book club (Shhhh don’t tell my guys there was life before Turn the Page) and I wanted to read it again. Life got to me, and I failed, first I was crazy busy with work, and then I got a nasty virus, but I’m pretty sure I can remember enough to write something relevant-ish (if I go off track let me know)…

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

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When I read Water for Elephants I fell in love, I had not expected to, and I had not wanted to read it at all, NOT EVER!!! Yes, I was a stubborn little pain in the arse, but I had my reasons: 1) They made it into a film starring Robert Pattinson, and I was still angry that he was a sparkly vampire, in a godawful film or three that I had been made to watch by my preteen children. 2) It was obviously a pile of romantic slush, I could tell this from the cover of the DVD, and I really don’t do sloppy stuff. So my reasons were sensible and valid…..right? WRONG! What I didn’t realise was that I very nearly refused to read a book that I would love so much that it would stop me from doing pretty much anything else for three days.

The story starts with 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski living in a nursing home where he has no freedom, is made to eat blended food, in spite of having the ability to chew solids, and is thoroughly fed up. The circus is in town, and he is keen to go, but his daughter doesn’t turn up to take him, so he sets off alone…

When we are taken back to Jacob’s youth, it transpires that as a young man he was in the middle of studying to become a vet when he receives news that changes his life completely.  Jacob leaves his life and jumps on a train, a circus train, and here he meets some interesting (Kinko & Camel) and some very dark characters (Uncle Al and August) and the woman that he hopes will one day notice him. This is the story of the circus, and Jacob’s experiences of it, and his internal battle with hating the brutality of the circus, yet feeling that he belonged there.

I was surprised at how dark the book was at times, not at all the light, frothy romance novel I expected at all. The Circus of the 1930s was certainly not a glamorous place, it was hard, uncaring, and quite frankly pretty bleak. Gruen researched the history of the circus in depth, and took inspiration from stories that she found, for some of the incidents that happen in the book. I gave this book 4.5* in 2012 and I suspect that I will still love it when I find time to read it again. The group gave it a solid 4.5* too, so it’s a definite yes from us.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

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I came to this book with no expectations, I had not read a synopsis, I had met nobody who had read the book, and I had no idea that it was released as a film in 2017. I was dragged into the book very early on and spat out again at the end, there was no point at which I wanted to put it down and read something else instead. I laughed out loud several times whilst reading this book, and considering that it’s target audience is ‘young adult’, that is quite something.

Jasper Jones is set in Australia and is the story of Charlie Bucktin, a 13-year-old boy who lives a pretty simple life, until Jasper Jones comes to his bedroom window one night to ask for his help. Jasper literally turns Charlie’s life upside down, dragging him into an adventure that no teenager is prepared for, and this is how the book starts. The people in the town believe that Jasper is a ‘bad un’, he has a reputation for making trouble, and they blame him for everything bad that happens. This reputation is unfounded and seems to be down to several things 1) his being mixed race, 2) his father being a drunk bully and 3) his quiet sullenness.

The relationships in the story are complex, the people are flawed and the friendships are vital. The story is well written and there are some truly beautiful little moments that warm the heart of the reader. I absolutely loved this book for exactly what it was, a gorgeous wee story, with charming characters and witty dialogue. I gave the book 4*, unfortunately, nobody else had read it, so I gave my copy to Sam (to be passed on to Steph) and eagerly await their reviews. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone over the age of 13, with a thirst for adventure.

Happy reading

Mel x

July – Shtum

What can I say? July has been really exciting, this month saw the first discussion for our Facebook ‘online book club’. The group currently has 34 members and approximately 1/3 of those joined in the discussion. As for the meeting at my house, it was a big one, everyone wanted to discuss these books, so most of the group turned up. We laughed, we cried (welled up), we made plans for our own ashes (Saving June), and we shared our experiences of Autism. The meeting over ran, because we each had so much to add to the discussion, and I was reminded of how wonderfully diverse our fabulous group is.

Shtum – Jem Lester

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Shtum is a tough read, it takes us on the rollercoaster ride with Jonah’s parents, who are trying to get the right support/education for a child with Autism. This was incredibly well written on an emotional level, only someone who had actually experienced Autism first hand, and the effect it can have on a family dynamic could have written this well. It was clear that Jem Lester understood both the difficulties of living with a child with Autism, and also the issues with taking on the system, and getting the help that you need for your child in this country.

I identified with this story so much, as my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 6, and I could see in Jonah a lot of my son at that age. My son is now 12 and is doing well in mainstream education,  but there was a time when I worried that he would not. The violence unleashed on his family when Jonah had a meltdown was all too familiar to me, having spent three years covered in bruises myself when my boy was young, and to be honest revisiting this when reading such a perceptive book was really hard.

The attempts by the authorities in this story to shoe horn Jonah into a school that was wholly unsuitable for him was heartbreaking. I have seen this sort of thing happen, it always comes down to money, and families don’t get the support that they need because some authority figure with a limited understanding of the situation, and a perfect little life makes decisions based mainly on what is best for their budget, with the child’s needs coming second. Why people should have to fight such long and painful battles to get their children what they need is beyond me, but this book reflected that beautifully.

The characters in the book are all flawed, which made them interesting, if not always likeable. My opinions of characters changed often as the first person narrative revealed more information about each of them. The groups, both at my house and online loved this book, giving it an average rating over all of 4.5*, I gave it 4* personally, as although the writing was good in the sense that it felt real, it wasn’t a beautifully written book. Shtum is certainly a book worth reading, and particularly if you know little about Autism, as the insight is fabulous.

Saving June – Hannah Harrington

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Saving June is the story of Harper and her journey to California to scatter her sister’s ashes. June has committed suicide, and Harper is determined to take her to the place she always longed to be. Harper feels that this will, in some way allow her sister to finally be happy and that she must take her there, to atone for being nasty to June the last time she saw her. Driven by survivor’s guilt, and the knowledge that her relationship with her sister could have been closer, June sets off with her best friend and one of June’s friends.

This journey is both physical and spiritual for Harper, an outsider, who doesn’t usually take risks. Travelling from Chicago to California in an old van with a guy you barely know and your sister’s ashes in the back, didn’t seem like something Harper would do, but this was a pilgrimage that she felt she had to make. En route to California, they attend a protest march and a punk rock concert (where the story kind of takes an unrealistic turn), and Harper gets to know Jake, and learns about his past. Meanwhile back at home, Harper’s Mum and Aunt are left wondering where the hell she is and what is going on.

Notably, this book is young adult (teen) fiction, and as such does not have the depth that an adult requires from a book with this subject matter. Suicide is not explored fully, the absolute despair and devastation that it brings to those left behind are not felt by the reader. This being the case, the readers in the group felt that it was missing something, although we pretty much all agreed that it was not terrible and it didn’t offend us in any way, so we gave it an average rating of 2.5* (which is what I gave it). The online group also gave the book scores of between 2* – 3*, it is a good book, it is not great, and it is not really engaging enough for adult readers.

Happy Reading!
Mel x