A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle

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A Star Called HenryBorn in the Dublin slums of 1901, his father a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and settler of scores, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he’s out robbing and begging, often cold and always hungry, but a prince of the streets. By Easter Monday, 1916, he’s fourteen years old and already six-foot-two, a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army. A year later he’s ready to die for Ireland again, a rebel, a Fenian and a killer. With his father’s wooden leg as his weapon, Henry becomes a Republican legend – one of Michael Collins’ boys, a cop killer, an assassin on a stolen bike.

We had a lively discussion about Roddy Doyle’s “A star called Henry”. Many of the group had been unsure about reading it because they could see it would be about Ireland’s troubled history and lots of violence, but actually, once they read it, they viewed it positively. In fact everyone who attended the discussion, enjoyed the book, though they found the history it portrayed, very upsetting. Henry Smart and his father carry the tale that is written in the oral tradition style, yet with vivid description in pithy couplets. Henry Smart and his father for whom he has been named, are larger than life characters who use his father’s leg as an effective weapon. As with the scene at the General Post Office, there is an element of myth and legend, more grandiose in the telling. Doyle gives a positive view of women as they fight alongside the men and particularly his wife causes a lot of damage. Doyle provides a vivid picture of the Dublin slums in the 1920s and 30s. It is a political novel but does not take sides. It was what it was. The conditions were deplorable for the ordinary people and soldiers returning from the war, suffering from post-traumatic stress and with no job or income, were an easy target for the British to use to keep order in Ireland as the Black and Tans. So people were ripe for rebellion against the British. However as Henry Smart found, they were all just used for political ends and social reform did not happen. Instead the IRA got power and destroyed any who disagreed with them, or who stood in the way of their own political or monetary gain. Henry Smart started off being hunted by the British, but by the end he was also on the IRA hit list – the very people he had helped bring to power. He realises his ideals of fighting for reform were only his and that he has been used. He ends up on the run, leaving for America.

There were less of us at this reading group session so maybe that has skewed the figures, but we gave this book 8 out of 10.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Group

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The Caller by Chris Carter

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BG‘Tanya Kaitlin is looking forward to a relaxing night in, but as she steps out of her shower, she hears her phone ring. The video call request comes from her best friend, Karen Ward. Tanya takes the call and the terror begins.

Detective Robert Hunter of the LAPD Special Section and his colleague Carlos Garcia, are thrown headlong into a horrific investigation, chasing a predator who scouts the streets and social media networks for victims. It’s a race against time – whose phone will ring next?

We didn’t think much of this. Rather formulaic, and annoyingly no real suspects. The murderer was introduced in the last few chapters, and the motive didn’t really match the scale of his gruesome murders. On a more positive note, we quite liked the assassin being an unintentional victim, and it did instigate an interesting conversation about how people use social media. Wouldn’t recommend.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group

 

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

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The Greatcoat by Helen DunmoreIn the winter of 1952, Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her husband Philip, a GP. With Philip spending long hours on call, Isabel finds herself isolated and lonely as she strives to adjust to the realities of married life. Woken by intense cold one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under it for warmth, she starts to dream. And not long afterwards, while her husband is out, she is startled by a knock at her window. Outside is a young RAF pilot, waiting to come in.

His name is Alec, and his powerful presence both disturbs and excites her. Her initial alarm soon fades, and they begin an intense affair. But nothing has prepared her for the truth about Alec’s life, nor the impact it will have on hers …

Upper Norwood Library Reading Group had a pleasant discussion about The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. There was still some disagreement between those who enjoyed it and those who didn’t. Those who didn’t, felt there was a grey, drear atmosphere throughout the book which depressed them. Those who did enjoy it, agreed about the grey sense of the book particularly the beginning, but felt this represented how it was after the war. We felt Helen Dunmore portrayed life in the fifties extremely well, using a minimal amount of words. It is evocative of that era. We felt the attitude of the doctor towards his wife – protective breadwinner whose wife should stay at home – is also representative of the fifties. We had a discussion about the genre of the book. The publishers call it a “flesh-creeping ghost story” but we didn’t find it scary at all. Although there is a strong sense of atmosphere, interestingly the predominant “ghost” is actually flesh and blood: he drops blood and eats, drinks and makes love. He is not just an apparition. A suggestion was made that maybe the episodes with Alec, the ghost, were only in Isabel’s imagination. In many ways the story is more a time-travel story where Isabel takes over the past life of their landlady.  The plot is really to resolve a tragic situation that happened in the war. Alec is trapped in the last few days of his life and Elizabeth is forever waiting for him. His greatcoat is the vehicle used to summons Alec back but he appears to the younger Isabel and thus the original tragedy is resolved and the dead are at peace. The story is a homage to all those bomber pilots who never came back. We scored this book 6.5 out of 10.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Reading Group

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

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Dark Corners by Ruth RendellWhen Carl sells a box of slimming pills to his close friend Stacey, inadvertently causing her death, he sets in train a sequence of catastrophic events which begin with subterfuge, extend to lies, and culminate in murder.

At this month’s reading group we discussed Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell. The fact that it was her last book written and she died the same year added a melancholic tone to the discussion. The group was united in their belief that this was not her best work. In fact many felt that the publishers had rushed through the process, and that the book was really only Rendell’s first draft. This was due mainly to the plot’s loose ends and the fact that the characters are not fully developed. Many of the characters are 2-dimensional and wooden and the dialogue is very old-fashioned. The main premise of the story is good. Carl inadvertently causes the death of his friend and this triggers a chain of events involving blackmail and murder. The story has a sub-plot that interweaves with the main storyline in some way, though we felt this should have been developed further. Overall we were disappointed with this book and some of us vowed to read another of her books to get a better impression of Ruth Rendell’s writing. We gave it 4 out of 10.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

Phillip K Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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616ZHHIcWGL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The book in question for our book group was Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the SCI-FI classic which went on to spawn Ridley Scott’s cult film Blade Runner. I think I picked it because, well, who isn’t a fan of Harrison Ford right? He’s sooooo dreamy.

As usual, we started by discussing the setting. Published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a post-apocalyptic 1992. Dick’s main protagonist, Rick Deckard, inhabits an earth ravaged by the nuclear fallout from “World War Terminus”. Although the majority of humanity has emigrated to Mars, Deckard lives in San Francisco and hunts androids for a living as a Blade Runner. One morning, after spending a lot of time admiring his neighbour’s pet horse, Deckard decides to capitalise on the bounties of six fugitive androids so that he might replace his own mechanical sheep with a bonafide real one. So we spent a while fielding pretty valid questions like: What’s up with all the livestock? And why is there also robot livestock? The cars can fly now? Why do Blade Runners hunt androids? Why did people invent such sophisticated androids that the only way to tell them apart from humans is administering a Rorschach-esque “Voigt-Kampff” test? I guess that herein lies one of the main criticisms of the book – that the world Dick portrayed wasn’t as immersive as we’d like it to be. As opposed to the water-tight realities of Discworld, Middle Earth or wherever Star Trek takes place, the future Dick depicted lacked depth and was tough to grasp. Sometimes, as opposed to giving readers reasoning, it seemed as though Dick was telling us to just accept what was happening and move on. But then maybe that was the point? Reality merged with fantasy towards the end of the novel as Deckard began having visions of the messiah-like figure Wilbur Mercer. Was this to demonstrate how subjective ideas surrounding life/religion/morality/humanity are? Or was this for some other reason entirely? Perhaps we should just accept it and move on?

I think the bulk of the meeting was spent debating ideas surrounding empathy. The emotion plays a pivotal role in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Dick suggests that empathy is all that separates humans from androids. Once a Blade Runner catches a suspect they undergo a Voigt-Kampff test to determine android from human. This test involves asking subjects questions in an attempt to provoke empathy and consequently identify a human being. This prompted some good debates as we started to discuss parallels between the treatment of androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the treatment of animals in the industrial food system. Do we feel empathy for slaughtered animals? Did anyone feel empathy for the androids? Does the fact that some people feel no empathy for slaughtered livestock make them any less human? What exactly does empathy entail? Why were we now obsessed with livestock? Is the treatment of androids more specifically an allegory of the treatment of slaves in modern history? These were all questions we chewed over like a mechanical sheep eating cud.

In the end, the book scored a respectable 5.2 out of 10.

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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9781408871768We are often quite wary of big award winners and rarely come back with a high score for novels deemed worthy by panels of experts. Lincoln in the Bardo is an exception.

The novel is by American short story writer George Saunders and is his first novel, which he first began to work on over 20 years ago. The novel was awarded The Man Booker Prize in 2017.

Written, or perhaps constructed, using quotes from multiple sources, some genuine and others fictional, it’s quite impressive how the author weaves these snippets together to form a coherent narrative, a story easily followed.

The story centres on the death of Willie Lincoln, favourite son of US President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of 11, and tells of his experiences in the otherworldly Bardo, a state similar to concepts like limbo and purgatory, a place where souls with issues gather to work through the internalised guilt and regrets holding them back from moving on to whatever comes next, or simply because they cannot accept that they are deceased.

Willie’s death causes the President much grief and anguish, at a time when he was not regarded as the national hero he is held up to be today. The civil war was dragging on and political tensions about the path the country was on led to Lincoln being perceived as a very unpopular leader.

On several occasions, grieving and seeming not to accept his son’s death, Lincoln visits the body of his son as it lays in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery, prompting much interest and debate among the other spirits present in the graveyard.

In this context we are introduced to a cast of colourful characters, 166 ghosts whose observations and interactions lead us on Willie’s journey from sick-box, the term the dead use for coffins, towards his ultimate end. They are all concerned for the boy who should not be lingering in the Bardo as he has no unfinished business.

The three main spectres who tell the tale are the many limbed (along with eyes, noses, and mouths) Roger Bevins III, a Gay man who has committed suicide, Hans Vollman who manifests with a huge unsatisfied erection after dying before he got to consummate his marriage to his young wife, and The Reverend Everly Thomas whose sins are too much to acknowledge, even to himself. The spirits of the dead are all moved by the boy and his father grieving as he visits the crypt and holds his lifeless son in his arms. The story reaches its climax with Roger and Hans desperately attempting to reach the President in order to enable Willie to move on.

We rated this book 4.6 out of 5 stars. It’s an innovative novel, profound and thought provoking, its darkness balanced with warmth and humour. We highly recommend it.

Andrew, Brixton Library Reading Group

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

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When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.

The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul’s idyllic tableau is shattered…

Because of the nature of the story, most of the members agreed that it was difficult to categorically say they have enjoyed it.  However the majority of them thought it was well written, was gripping and [SPOILER ALERT] even though the murders of the children were revealed right from the start they were captivated by the story up to the end.

Here are a few of their comments.

“It was such brilliant writing, the characters were well described and I thought most people could relate to somebody in the story”. “The description of the place and the atmosphere reminding me of the time I was looking after my grandchildren. Taking them to playgrounds full of child minders and hearing some of their stories”.

Others added that it really was compulsive reading but the ending was abrupt, there was no indication of what tipped Louise over to the point of committing the murders. Not enough information was given about her background. They would have wanted to know what made Louise the way she was, what made her a killer. Someone thought it was an interesting psychological analysis of human nature. “It evoked lots of emotions, unfortunately emotions that were appalling”.

However for one or two of the group, the story seamed clunky because of the style of writing, the constant change of tense, and they though some of the characters were forced to fit into the plot. “It made the story somewhat lightweight”

There was a fifty – fifty divide in terms of recommending the novel to someone. While some argued that it was a novel that would be difficult to recommend to anyone especially those with small children, others thought precisely the opposite. “It should be read by those who employ nannies as well as nannies themselves; so they all have an understanding of human interaction within that setting”.

The novel received an overall score of 4/5.  However, for the first time, with a few caveats such as: creepy 4- reluctant 4- uncomfortable 4, as well as a few double markings: 4 for excellent writing and 1 for likability of the actual story.

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group