The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon


The Life and Loves of a She-DevilA darkly comic satire of the war of the sexes, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is the fantasy of the wronged woman made real. Our group opened with the comment that Weldon’s famous text is absurd, funny and unbelievable, not meant to be taken seriously. We, of course, then proceeded to take it very seriously indeed in our further examination of the writing!

Some readers found Weldon’s grossly exaggerated, hyper-real characters and scenarios comical; the writer is presenting us with a grotesque, a “freak show”, and holds nothing back in the playing out of this ultimate woman-scorned revenge story. The plot, in its simplest form, goes thus: Ruth, an ordinary, down-trodden housewife with an extraordinary (for all the wrong reasons for a woman, according to socio-cultural standards of attractiveness) appearance lives by the Litany of the Good Wife:

I must pretend to be happy when I am not; for everyone’s sake.
I must make no adverse comment on the manner of my existence; for everyone’s sake.
I must be grateful for the roof over my head and the food on the table, and spend my days showing it, by cleaning and cooking and jumping up and down from my chair; for everyone’s sake.

Her husband Bobbo (we did not miss the opportunity to mock the name Bobbo), a “good-looking man” whom Ruth is “lucky to have” begins an affair with Mary Fisher and shares the details of his sexual experiences with Ruth, his homemaker. Not only this, he claims to have fallen “in love” with Mary Fisher, who “lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea” and “writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.”. Where Ruth is tall, lumbering, dark and unprepossessing, Mary Fisher is “pretty and delicately formed, prone to fainting and weeping and sleeping with men while pretending that she doesn’t.”

After a particularly disastrous and ill-timed visit from Bobbo’s sympathetic parents in which the soup is ruined by dog hairs, Ruth finds that “the Litany doesn’t work. It doesn’t soothe: it incenses.” From here on she dedicates every moment and ounce of energy into becoming a She-Devil, renouncing all attempts to be a good wife, mother, woman. She divests herself of emotion and emotional connections: “I am a woman learning to be without her children. I am a snake shedding its skin.” Ruth (and some of us) henceforth relishes in her ingeniously cunning plans to exact her revenge on Bobby and Mary Fisher.

Speaking of shedding skin, the most-discussed and disgust-inducing part of the novel is when Ruth, having already succeeded in destroying Bobbo and Mary Fisher as individuals and a couple, as well as building a business empire, proceeds with the most outlandish surgeries to reconstruct her entire appearance as well as her voice and mannerisms. She becomes Mary Fisher: “Now I live in the High Tower, and the sea surges beneath as the moon circles and the earth turns”. Even those of us who supported and gloried in Ruth’s supremely devious vengeful ploys found this to be disappointing; Weldon’s message seems to be for a woman to be truly successful and win at life she must be beautiful and sexually desirable. Her daughter is robbed of her own agency and infected by the bias that Ruth passes on to her, perpetuating internalised misogyny in another generation. Although …She-Devil is oft cited as a feminist masterpiece, we found it problematic on these grounds as Ruth’s story ends with her embodying the “perfect woman” in appearance, sustaining the ideology not challenging it.

It was said several times that Weldon was very cynical and used the novel to criticise every societal construct going: marriage, the woman’s role, the man’s role, misogyny, separatist feminism, the medical profession, care homes and workers, the judicial system, religious types, unreligious types, the working class, the “dole” class, children, old people…nobody and nothing is spared the satirical, scathing pen wielded by Weldon. Unsurprisingly, this world where pretty much everyone (even Richard, the guinea pig) and everything is awful was too grim, gruesome and unsparing for some. Even with the rampant plastic surgery that exists today, Ruth procedures still jump out as particularly extreme and unpleasant.

The book reads almost like a fairy tale or incantation, something from an oral tradition which utilises lots of imagery and repetition of both words and ideas. It is told in simple, childlike sentences and the narrative voice changes from 1st (Ruth) to 3rd person, lending us Ruth’s immediate perspective but also creating a feeling that Ruth is omnipresent as the She-Devil, overseeing the ripple effects of the actions she sets in motion. The repetition of “Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower” has almost the same rhythmical beginning of “Once upon a time…”. One member pointed out that the motif of beautiful women in towers has sexual connotations.

Closing comments on the book were: compulsive reading, didn’t identify with any character, entertaining, funny, grotesque, silly, too manipulative, disappointing, dissatisfied with the style and character portrayals, could have been shorter, lost interest 3/4 in the novel, learned the lesson: invest in yourself, enjoyed in a horrible way, absurd, enjoyed more after watching the film, too contrived, a rollercoaster, testament to plastic surgery (!), loved it, anything but feminist, finished just for the group, enjoyed the snipes at various institutions, didn’t enjoy it, unsatisfactory, rollicking and fearless.

We scored The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon 7 out of 10, with a range of 4-9.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch


61mBeLfo6eL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In November Carnegie Library Reading Group discussed The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Our discussion opened with the comment that Rivers… was quite an enjoyable read, but it was a bit difficult getting on board with the fantastical elements, not being a fan of the genre. Others agreed that it was fun to begin with, but some of the magical scenes, particularly the final climax at the Royal Opera House, became too outlandish to suspend disbelief: “it built to a crescendo of silliness”. Nonetheless, we all commented on how much we enjoyed the irreverent humour of Peter, who seems a thoroughly upstanding young man and very recognisably representative of London. His sending up of police procedure with casual jibes and the painstaking adoption of official jargon really tickled many of us. One of the novel’s major strengths, we felt, is Aaronovitch’s witty turn of phrase. One early example was: “He was from Yorkshire, or somewhere like that, and like many Northerners with issues, he’d moved to London as a cheap alternative to psychotherapy.”
One of my favourites is: “I gave the prescribed Metropolitan police ‘first greeting’. Oi! I said. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

Many commented on how nice it was to recognise London in a tangible, geographical sense as well as the culture, phraseology and general sense of “London-ness”. By and large we found the medley of characters interesting. Many in the group found the idea of London River Gods and Goddesses intriguing and refreshingly original. We wondered why there would be both a Mama Thames and a Father Thames and decided: equal opportunities. Again, very melting-pot and very London.

“Arrayed on a leather sofa was as fine a collection of middle-aged African women as you’d find in a Pentecostal church (…) Seated incongruously among them was a skinny white woman in a pink cashmere twinset and pearls, looking as perfectly at home as if she’d wandered in on her way into town and had never left.”

Despite the humour and sense of fun in the novel, or perhaps more so because of it, the scenes of violence are especially lurid and…violent. Soon after the baby was thrown from the building near the beginning of the novel, one of our group thought “I’m not who this novel is aimed at”. In fact, we did agree that this would be a good book to recommend to male readers loathe to read fiction, or younger reluctant readers. It is high-octane, thrilling and a “testosterone-fuelled” series that is very readable and enjoyable (how many times have I used that adjective?!), but perhaps not as affecting or with as much depth as some of the other novels we’ve recently read.

Final comments on the novel were: a ripping good yarn, off-the-wall, tongue-in-cheek, awfully well-researched, enjoyable and fun (the most oft-used words by all of us), engaging, some ragged bits, not the best, gets too silly, made me laugh, clever and quirky. Overall, we scored Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch 8 out of 10, with a small range of just 6-8.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

Kindred by Octavia E Butler


KindredThe novel Kindred was written in 1979 by Octavia E. Butler, a black American science fiction writer, born in 1947 and who died much too early at the age of 58.
Kindred looks at the barbaric practice of slavery in the antebellum-era of the American South, from the perspective of a black woman in the 1970s. The narrative shifts between the present day (1970s) and 1800s, beginning in 1815 when the protagonist Dana, a young black writer is catapulted into Maryland to save a boy, Rufus, from a house fire. The novel then shifts through time until 1830s.

The novel offers the reader an exploration of themes such as race, power, gender, and class through the use of skilful storytelling. Butler decided to write Kindred as she had heard many young black American voices minimising the horrors of slavery and evoking the idea that slaves had a choice in their enslavement. Kindred fits more readily into the historical and political genre rather than science fiction and one could dismiss Dana’s ability to return to the present when things get difficult as a ‘cop out’ but the book erodes the idea that the racism of the past is no longer in the present.

It is the relationships with the other characters that help us to understand the struggle for survival. The slave character of Alice, who is actually a free woman, thinks Dana is above herself as she can read and write and ‘thinks she’s not black’. It takes Carrie, the character who cannot speak, to explain that your colour does not come off, no matter what you do, or how you act. If you are black, you are not white and will never be accepted as an equal. It is interesting to explore the idea that Kevin and Dana’s relationship could be the basis of the connection that Dana develops with Rufus. As Dana’s trips take her back in time we wonder if her bond with Rufus will help him to become a man of compassion and integrity, rather than the cruel and vicious plantation owner that his father is.

The novel is thought-provoking and its fast pace keeps the reader gripped. The final chapters are neither sentimental nor neat. There is tremendous power in Butler’s vision of the American South in science-fiction terms; vicious aliens, oppressed people and a heightened reality that brings the nightmare of slavery to a new audience. Butler did not need to send Dana back almost 200 years for us to see how America treats a large proportion of its citizens, but by showing us this extreme juxtaposition Butler encourages us to examine it afresh.

Sarah, Arodene Road Book Group

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn


Bottled Goods by Sophie van LlewynAlina is a young woman with a lot going for her a good teaching career, on the brink of publishing a maths text book and attractive too. But this is 70’s Roumania under Ceauscescu where freedom is unknown and you are answerable to the authorities for the least perceived anti-communist behaviour. This coupled with a mean mother, a marriage to someone from a vastly different background and the after- shock of her brother-in-law’s defection to the West opens a totally threatened existence for Alina. It’s hardly surprising that she and her husband Livieu, diminished by interrogation and prison, want to escape themselves. Not so easy when you are spied on by your own Party-member mother only concerned about her own future care!

Although Sophie van Llewyn has written a novella it packs the punch of a full-sized novel leaving space for the reader’s imagination. The bleakness and fear of living in a totalitarian state is palpable throughout Alina’s personal story where even magical realism has to play its part and shrinking someone seems to symbolise the ultimate control so necessary. It is breathtaking and extraordinary yet amongst the fear and darkness brings the levity so necessary… remember Sharkespeare’s clowns?

Van Llewyn does not shrink from the big themes…the complexities of marriage, the mother-daughter relationship and what it means to live in fear without freedom. It is all there and there is much to learn, enjoy and reflect on in this bold piece, small in stature but big in impact. I think we shall hear a lot more of this writer.

Edwin, Durning Library Reading Group

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan


Half blood bluesCarnegie Library Reading group chose this book as part of Black History Month. Our discussion started with the admission of surprise that the book is set in a period, the run-up to World War II, that we might not immediately think of as being a significant part of Black history. We agreed the novel covered a fascinating slice of time, presenting the experience of Black (and other “other”) jazz musicians, some of whom have travelled from the US to Europe, where opportunities abound, but then finding themselves caught in the chaos and threat of Nazi Germany. All whilst trying to make music. One of our group described it as a novel that gives us “footnotes in a larger history”. We all felt we gained a perspective of lives affected by the second World War that we otherwise never would have thought of.

The novel has the structure and form of a thriller, opening with the capture by the Gestapo of Hieronymus Falk, AKA the Kid, who becomes “posthumously” famous as a genius trumpet player, whilst Sid, our narrator and fellow member of the Hot Time Swingers, watches on. Whether or not Sid betrayed the Kid to the SS out of jealousy over a woman, Delilah, and the Kid’s prodigal talent; whether Hiero is actually still alive as claimed by bandmate Chip, about whom we hear “lies leave his mouth dressed like truth”; how many of the original band survive or are at least traceable…these are all points of suspense that keep pushing the plot forward. The story is also driven by journey and time: Sid and Chip travel from racist Baltimore to swinging Berlin to seek opportunities not open to them in America; the band then have to flee Berlin to the relative tenuous safety of Paris; from there they have to again escape to Switzerland, at which point we come back from the 1940s to the ’90s and join Chip and Sid’s journey to be reunited with the Kid in Poland.

Apart from the vigorous plot, we were impressed by the depth of characterisation and the relationships between the men in particular. A few of us were really surprised to learn Edugyan is female; the banter, jealousies, rivalry, brotherhood, ribbing and slang between the bandmates feels so authentic. The complexity of feelings between Sid and Hiero, Chip and Sid, Sid, Hiero and Delilah and even between Ernst and his father and the rest of the band, and Paul and the band, is remarkable (I did think of All That Man Is and how flat many of the relationships felt there by comparison) and made more impressive by the fact that a woman created them. A male reader’s perspective would have been insightful here (how often I bemoan the lack of the male perspective in the group!).

We all commented on the marvellous use of language. Edugyan is mistress of simile and metaphor, physical descriptions, emotional language and dialect. Capturing the emotiveness and import of the music the band, particularly Hiero, were making is not an easy thing to convey in writing and yet we got it, even those unmusical among us. There were lines upon lines of text we could quote for their beauty, humour, truth, wisdom…so many, in fact, that I don’t know where to start!

We weren’t all unanimously as emotionally affected by the novel, and some of us found the slang and style quite difficult to penetrate at first; nonetheless, we acknowledged the talent of Edugyan and the skill and success of the novel overall. We scored Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan 8 out of 10, with a range of 6 to 9.

Here is Cynthia’s review; she was kind enough to share her thoughts as we couldn’t hear her comments clearly in the actual meeting:

The opening pages of the book didn’t appeal to me much. For one thing I thought it was going to be yet another book about people drinking too much or taking drugs. After a page or two when it was clearer that it was a story about jazz musicians it became much more interesting. I got to grips with the vocabulary: janes and gates, axe (for double bass), skins (for drums) etc.

The story is told from the perspective of Sidney Griffiths. He was so honest – about his jealousy of Hiero (his talent and Delilah), his devastation when he realised he was not talented, his friendship with Chip, his love for Dalilah). I wondered about a comparison with Mozart and Salieri. And also is the name Delilah significant, is there a Sampson? I was a bit bothered that in the section of Berlin in the war, Hiero was a quiet person, unassuming; in Paris his personality had changed – he was obsessed with the recording and with finding milk.

Here is an example of the writing that I loved:

‘… the boy who could make his glissandi snap like marbles, the high C’s piercing, Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. … After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.’

It’s a complex story, about the war, about love, ambition, betrayal, loss, with lots of fun bits (the journey on the bus in Poland), and finally I think reconciliation. Though I said 8, perhaps it should have been 9.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading group

The woman at 1000 degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason


The woman at 1000 degrees by Hallgrimur HelgasonI thought this was a very well written book (and one assumes the translation into English does justice to the original Icelandic). The story line is that of an elderly woman living out the last few weeks of her life in a converted garage somewhere in Iceland and reminiscing about her life. The plot jumps back and forth between the present and the past. It is both a funny book (plenty of gallows humour) but also in many ways a very dark book. Much of the reminiscing concerns the woman’s experiences during World War II when as a pre-pubescent and teenage girl she was caught up first in Denmark and then in Germany. Her father had become an admirer of Nazi Germany and became an officer in the Nazi military. The girl and her mother were separated from her father, and then she from both her parents, wandering around in war-torn Germany and adjacent lands. Her life during this period became a rather horrific coming of age for her – her initiation into sex being in part through brutal rapes.

The rest of the book focuses on her experiences in the rest of her life in and out of Iceland – all of it offering little in the way of joy or happiness or fulfillment. However she meets her end with equanimity, accepting life as it has been given to her and without self-pity. The 1000 degrees in the title refers to the temperature her body will face in the furnace of the crematorium when she dies and presumably in her own mind will provide a suitably symbolic ending to her existence.

I found the book on the whole an engaging read. Whether the structure and dynamic of the novel works completely is another matter. The constant going from the present to the past and back again can become confusing, as can the sheer number of people and events in her life. However I would definitely recommend the book.

Michael, Durning Library Reading Group

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton


In The Shepherd's HutIn The Shepherd’s Hut, Winton crafts the story of Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who flees from the scene of his father’s violent death and strikes out for the vast wilds of Western Australia. All he carries with him is a rifle and a water jug. All he wants is peace and freedom. But surviving in the harsh salt lands alone is a savage business. And once he discovers he’s not alone out there, all Jaxie’s plans go awry. He meets a fellow exile, the ruined priest Fintan MacGillis, a man he’s never certain he can trust, but on whom his life will soon depend.

Most of us found the book difficult to get into as we struggled with the narrator’s use of Australian colloquial speech and slang. While for some of the readers this way of writing was an effective way of getting into the mind of an uneducated, inarticulate narrator, others felt it was ‘self-conscious and too obvious’, and found it distracting.

Living at the edge of civilization and full of back-stories, the main characters gave us a lot of material to discuss. Jaxie is full of contradictions – childish, tough, self-reliant – and we thought the author somehow managed to reflect the depth of his character in the lyrical desert landscape descriptions frequently occurring in the book. One of the readers reflected:

After 50 pages I thought no-one could talk about a walk across the desert for much longer but the author managed it and to make it fascinating’.

We found Jaxie a challenging, but ultimately sympathetic character that we cared about, and wondered if someone as damaged by life as him could ever function in a conventional society. We were left slightly disappointed by the open ending, expecting some kind of resolution in a reunion with his girlfriend Lee.

The character of the priest drew a lot of speculations about his mysterious past. We questioned his role in the story, some of us concluding that the encounter with him changed Jaxie. We enjoyed reading about their relationship changing from suspicion to collaboration. The final pages’ events reminded some of us of action movie scenes and there were comments that what happened was too sudden: ‘an easy way to end the book’. For others it was a culminative moment of the story when Jaxie became a man.

Overall, some of us thought the book didn’t live up to high reviews and didn’t find it compelling enough to finish reading it on time, while for others it was ‘a difficult but intriguing read’. Scores ranged between 5-7, with the average of 6.

Magda, Waterloo Library Reading group

Harvest by Jim Crace


61e7s19aeQL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Crace’s novel Harvest, written in 2013, is set in an unspecified historical era. It tells the story of an isolated rural community who work on the land and is set at the time when the village is at its most bountiful, harvest time, hence the title. The book’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, has been injured and is not able to take part in the bringing in of the harvest this year. Walter tells the story in a bewitching, old fashioned prose which is descriptive rather than dramatic; leaving it to what is left unsaid to add the tension to the story.

The novel begins at dawn with the villagers waking up to see smoke from two unexpected fires. The first comes from the edge of the village, in the common ground of the woods, where some strangers have erected a hut and lit a fire by the light of the moon. They’re following the age-old custom which decrees that strangers can earn the right to stay in a village by building four walls and a fire before they’re discovered.

The second fire is more worrying, because it comes from the landlord, Master Kent’s barn. The villagers worry that the manor house itself is on fire, and that they will get the blame for sleeping through it after their post- harvest revels. When they arrive, they see the stable is on fire and the dovecote has already been destroyed; there are no doves in sight. Walter suspects that three of the village’s young bachelors, Christopher and Thomas Derby and Brooker Higgs, are responsible as he overheard them talking when they were walking back from the woods rather worse for wear after eating magic mushrooms.

However, rather than take the young men to task he allows the villagers to deliver the customary punishments to the new strangers in the village; two men and a woman with a crimson shawl which looks very much like the one that belonged to the Master’s late wife.

Set alongside this is the arrival of the Master’s cousin Edmund Jordan and his henchmen. Jordan is all for change and wants to line his own pockets and sacrifice the villagers’ livelihoods. His plan is to enclose the common land and create pastures for sheep farming and do away with crops altogether which is far more labour intensive. This dichotomy of the old in the new is matched against witchcraft and a degree of sexual pressure which adds tension to the novel and allows the reader to imagine what might happen when law and order is delivered by custom rather than structure.

Sarah, Arodene Road Book Group

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


My Sister, the Serial KillerWhen Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

When I informed the group of this title prior to our meet-up, it was said “I hope it’s better than the title suggests!”, and in fact a few of the group were worried it would be a terrible read based on the title! Our discussion, however, opened with praise: “Loved it!…Very enjoyable…Clever…Humorous…”

We spent a lot of the discussion analysing the two sisters’ personalities and trying to understand their motives. Some described Ayoola, the irreverent serial killer referred to in the title, as a “playgirl”: frivolous and fun-loving and completely amoral, with the ingenuity of a child, whilst another thought Ayoola manipulative, using her wiles to win over everyone. We wondered whether Ayoola may be on the Autism spectrum. The chapter ‘Ice Cream’ may corroborate this. The sister of Femi, one of Ayoola’s recent victims, finds Ayoola and demands, distraught, to know what she did to him, just as Ayoola is enjoying an ice-cream. Korede observes:
“She pauses the licking, not because she is moved by Peju’s words, but because she is aware that it is proper to pause whatever one is doing when in the presence of someone who is grieving. I spent three hours explaining that particular etiquette to her one Sunday afternoon.”

We enjoyed the contrast between the central characters of Ayoola and Korede: Ayoola without a care, unburdened by guilt to such an extent she posts about her victim on Instagram and is pleased by the number of “likes” she receives. Korede, meanwhile, suffers sleepless nights and is increasingly weighed down by the guilt of the crimes she is covering up. She questions her sister’s protestations that she is a victim of violent relationships, defending herself against predatory men, as Femi the poet becomes increasingly real to Korede through retrospective social media. She is awakened to Ayoola’s real guilt (or madness) when Tade, who’s character is flawless (apart from being a shallow fool for falling for Ayoola’s charms) is attacked. Korede is faced with a choice, expressed through her hitherto comatose friend, Muhtar: she can choose to stop aiding and abetting her sister and have a new beginning with Muhtar, or continue to do what she has always done and clean up Ayoola’s “messes”. Korede throws away Muhtar’s number, left for her after he has left the hospital, which tells us which option was chosen.

When Korede sets in motion the covering up of Ayoola’s latest crime, the assault of Tade with intent to kill, Tade says: “You’re worse than she is (…) There’s something wrong with her…but you? What’s your excuse?” We discussed Korede’s culpability in enabling her sister to proceed with murder after murder at length, and concluded that although of course we know Korede should report Ayoola, if only to get her the help she needs, Braithwaite has presented us with airtight reasons she does not. From the moment Korede first sets eyes on her baby sister she is conditioned to look after her: “You’re a big sister now, Korede. And big sisters look after little sisters.” Korede has been defending Ayoola her entire life, and with good reason as the girls grew up with a father willing to prostitute his own daughter to further his business, a mother unable to protect them from her husband, interfering relatives offering no support at all, lascivious men eyeing Ayoola and a corrupt police force more likely to abuse than involve appropriate mental health services, if there are any.

We discussed the language and style, finding Braithwaite’s writing succinct but expressive, able to conjure up images in the readers’ minds and convey culture and context effortlessly with a few well-chosen phrases. Braithwaite uses dialogue and dialect very cleverly to convey the class, gender and power struggles faced in contemporary Nigeria. A good example of this is when Korede is stopped by traffic police and switches to broken English in order to appear humble and from a lower class than she is. Apart from being guilty of covering up her sister’s crimes, Korede seems to be frightened of the police for other reasons; the fact that passing drivers give her sympathetic looks and she doesn’t feel safe to unlock her door for the officer tells us that law enforcers are not to be trusted under even normal circumstances. The chapters are short and punchy, which helps build the tension and keep the plot ploughing forward. The first chapter is the perfect example of this: “Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never have to hear those words again.” In two sentences we learn a great deal. We discover more and more about the sisters’ past and upbringing through short flashback chapters, which, without obviously seeming to, help us understand their current circumstances and sympathise with them.

Overall, we scored My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite 8 out of 10, with a range of 7 to 10.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

All That Man Is by David Szalay


All That Man Is by David SzalayNine men. Each of them at a different stage of life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving – in the suburbs of Prague, beside a Belgian motorway, in a cheap Cypriot hotel – to understand just what it means to be alive, here and now.

This was one of the first audiobooks we were going to try, but the vast majority thought the narration was “terrible” and “tedious”, and found it too difficult to focus in and listen to the story, so most switched to reading the hard copy of the book.

Discussion of the text opened with the questioning of why All That Man Is is categorised as a novel; we were unified in the feeling that it read more as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, with no overarching narrative, plot or development of character. There is a link between the final elderly protagonist and the first young character – they are grandfather and grandson – but beyond a couple of references at the end, there are no firm plot strings tying the tales together. One of our group, I think Cynthia, suggested it was reminiscent of Girl, Woman, Other in its composition and structure, but that was done more expertly by Evaristo.

Many of us found the idea of the book interesting: an overview of manhood exploring the different stages of male development. Unfortunately, most of us felt the execution of the premise poor, with the central male characters primarily interested in sex at a younger age, money matters in midlife and mortality in the latter years.

The story some of us found the most interesting was the last, as there was a bit more complexity of character, with more than just sex or money being the main focus. The story offers an insight into the vulnerability and loneliness of old age, nicely illustrated by the episode where the character finds himself on the wrong side of the road getting honked and sworn at by another driver. What was once fluid and functional has become fraught with stress, threat and fear; some of our group could identify with the experience. There is also the insinuation that the protagonist had repressed his homosexuality throughout his life, essentially never having been true to himself and now facing the last of his time essentially alone bar a few dutiful visits from distant and disinterested family. It was a poignant tale with a character and situation of some complexity, but this story alone was not enough to save the collection, unfortunately.

There were a few other interesting incidentals in some of the other stories, but overall the feeling was that too many of the protagonists were unattractive and ruthless, with the reader left feeling that life is disappointing and ultimately pointless. One of our group described the book as being about a series of men who are lost. They are all somewhere (in the EU) that is not home, isolated and removed from the familiar or comforting. The geographical dislocation is reflected in the mental state of the men: nobody is happy, all are discontented or on the road to discontentment. One of our group said this book is an insult to the men she knows, and she would hope her sons would have a bit more to their personalities than what is portrayed here by Szalay as “all that man is”. Another of our group described the theme as “Sex in the 9 ages of man”!

The language was described as too wordy, with some good descriptions of setting but overall superfluous and at times pretentious.

Closing comments were: Couldn’t finish it, don’t like short stories, indifferent to the characters, quite enjoyed it, interesting in many ways but hard work, riveting and imaginative, felt engaged and nostalgic about European travels, jarring style, pretentious characters, nasty views of women, couldn’t identify, too shallow.

We scored All That Man Is by David Szalay a mediocre 5 out of 10, with quite a range of 1 to 7.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group