Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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Days Without EndAt last! A book we thought refreshingly different and well written, though harrowing and brutal.

Days Without End, introduces us to Thomas McNulty, who has crossed the Atlantic to rebuild his life. The traumatic chaos of what he’s left behind in Sligo – his family dead from famine, his country “starved in her stocking feet”, is more than matched by the horrors that he encounters in the US. Thomas teams up with a boy named John Cole, and becomes a dancer, rigged out in women’s clothing to entertain miners, a “prairie fairy”. But when the bloom of youth departs the pair at 17, they volunteer for the US Army and join the Oregon Trail to California. “We knew in our hearts our work was to be Indians,” the settlers who now regarded themselves as the rightful occupants of the South-West wanted rid of them, at a price of two dollars a scalp..

‘A love story, humour, well-drawn characters, and the senselessness and brutality of the Indian Wars. An excellent read.’

‘I finally finished Days Without End in one shattering late-night push.  I agree with your verdict.. some lyrical descriptions which off-set the brutal details of the story told’.

‘Yes it was a rather harrowing read, but I thought very fresh and different, and well written. Much enjoyed!’.

Sara, Clapham Library book group

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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The Sellout by Paul BeattyThe joke’s on you if you missed our November book club meeting! We drank heaps of tea, ate loads of donuts and discussed last year’s Booker prize winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Set in modern Los Angeles, The Sellout follows one man’s struggle to put his home city of Dickens back on the map. His approach progresses from building road signs and painting city boundaries to reinstating slavery and segregating a local high school – with the latter actions ultimately landing him in the Supreme Court. The book has been praised as “daring and abrasive”, a “galvanizing satire of post-racial America”, with the Financial Times even going so far as to call it “fruity”. So, with insatiable appetites, we dug in . . .

Our first topic of debate was the setting. I believe we all agreed that The Sellout questioned notions of race from all over the world. However, from the pop-culture references to the location of the nameless protagonist’s farm, the book is firmly planted in America. And perhaps if we were being even more precise, The Sellout is specific to south California. Readers encounter cultural disputes caused by urban renewal and clashes between African American and Hispanic communities. These are arguably more unique to Los Angeles, while the other topics that Beatty discusses are perhaps more universal (de facto segregation, racial profiling, police brutality and disparities in educational opportunities). I think everyone was also surprised to find out that farm where the narrator lives was drawn from reality, as the fictional city of Dickens is apparently drawn from the real-life Richland Farms area in Compton. This certainly added weight to The Sellout, strengthening the link between the farfetched plot and real life issues.

The plot was probably the main point of contention. At quite a few points the story seems to take a backseat while Beatty goes off on long riffs or outbursts. For some book clubbers these were pointless. Yet for others they were fantastic additions which were genuinely laugh-out-loud. Beatty’s rapier wit is perhaps exemplified in the re-imagined works of literature the character Foy Cheshire writes, which include Of Rice and Yen, The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade and The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. But this stand-up-routine-esque style wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Plus people were right to mention that the novel did have quite a weak ending. Ultimately, we were left asking what happened at the Supreme Court trial? What happened to our protagonist? And, most importantly, what was the point Beatty was actually trying to hammer home? The novel certainly made us consider issues surrounding race and prejudice but was there an overarching purpose? Or perhaps that was the point?

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Smut by Alan Bennett

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Smut by Alan BennettOur discussion of Smut started with the general consensus that it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read, particularly the first story, as the characters didn’t feel real and the scenarios were somewhat confusing.  It seemed unlikely to us that Bennett knew many middle-aged women, as Mrs Donaldson seemed like an idea of a middle-aged woman from the early/mid-20th Century rather than a real person of our time.  We did touch on Bennett’s predilection for twee, middle-aged Britishness, but our notions of what constitutes middle age or elderly has changed so drastically in the last 50 years or so that his presentation of Mrs Donaldson, who is only in her late 40s, as a passive older person in the latter stages of life seemed unrealistic and somewhat unfair.  One Clubber mentioned the difficulty in moving past Bennett’s voice, thus disallowing any connection with the characters and their plights.  Later in the discussion another Clubber questioned whether hearing Bennett’s distinctive narration when reading his book was a bad thing, especially as the writing is so economical whilst conveying a wealth of information and being humorous into the bargain.

The majority enjoyed the second story significantly more than the first because the web of adulterous relationships, lies and family politics seemed more likely and realistic than the unique business arrangement between Mrs Donaldson and her lodgers.  Some also preferred the second story because its female protagonists (Betty in particular) were dynamic and forceful in getting what they wanted, whereas Mrs Donaldson seemed passive and disengaged (a voyeur in life as well as the bedroom) even though the death of her husband had supposedly freed her to live.  We seemed to agree that although Bennett is the master of a witty turn of phrase, both stories were ultimately depressing in their view of married domestic life.  Smut was the perfect title, we agreed: mildly filthy and frivolous without breaking any boundaries – one Book Clubber asked: “What was the point?”

We scored Smut by Alan Bennett a distinctly average 5 out of 10, with scores ranging from 4 to 8.

Rita, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj

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Mariusz_Czubaj_2137_Cover_smallIn December Mariusz Czubaj’s 21:37 went under the knife! 21:37 follows Rudolph Heinz on the hunt for a killer when the gruesome bodies of two seminary students show up one cold Warsaw morning. Heinz, a Criminal Profiler with specific expertise surrounding theology, is put on the case after it is discovered that the victims’ heads were wrapped in plastic bags bearing the blood-smeared numbers “21” and “37”. Praised as “gritty, realistic, almost noir-ish” the book is perhaps not for the squeamish! Having said that though, we were all still able to stomach some mince pies and delicious polish chocolates!

So, put most purely, the book tells the story of a Criminal Profiler chasing a serial killer. Sounds simply enough, but I think quite a few of us found 21:37 confusing. Heinz seemed to constantly be back and forth between Warsaw and Katowice (where another murderer was on the loose). And then, alongside the seminary murders and the killer in Katowice who left feathers as a calling card, there were also intermittent flash-backs to an old case concerning a killer named “The Inquisitor”. On top of all this, it was hard distinguishing between characters with similar-looking Polish names.* At times, this made it very difficult to know exactly where Heinz was/who he was talking to/what he was talking about.

As you may have expected, religion was an underlying theme in 21:37. We all agreed that Czubaj didn’t have many nice things to say about Catholicism, yet he also didn’t make too big of a meal out of it. Sure, some Catholics may have a sore neck after reading the book, but Catholicism didn’t take an absolute beating. Instead of focussing his critique, Czubaj jumped around and touched upon an array of topics including: Pol Pot, Buddhism, karate, alcoholism, Johnny Lee Hooker, etc. This lead to some bookclubbers remarking that the book could have been a bit more nuanced. In addition, I think we were all left puzzled by the pop-culture references that were littered throughout 21:37. Rock stars and band names were thrown about sporadically, which I guess were meant to reference Heinz’s back-story as a guitarist. One bookclubber put forward the idea that this could have been to keep western audiences interested – the same way casting American actors in British films is sometimes considered to broaden global appeal. Even so, they were somewhat incongruous with the rest of the novel. But again though, perhaps the subtleties of Czubaj’s writing are lost in translation and would make sense to readers who were more familiar with Polish culture? Also maybe a lot of other things were affected by the translation? The book gets a fair bit of flak online for being poorly translated and it may be that it’s much more streamlined in Polish.

In the end, one might argue that Czubaj has been a bit of a magpie, stealing the choicest bits of other crime novels to piece together. 21:37 is perhaps best summarised as a mixture of Jo Nesbo and other Nordic thrillers with hints of Silence of the Lambs and some of Michael Connelly’s Detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch thrown in for good measure. All in all, though, the book showed real promise and scored a 5/10 across the board. Maybe the next will be better? And in which case, it was said that there were a few too many “f” and “mf” bombs – so please make the language a bit cleaner next time Czubaj!

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Swing

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either. Full of energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s latest novel. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it . . .

Not as enjoyable as anticipated by those of us who’d read White Teeth. We did rather struggle to find the ‘theme’, though reviewers have mentioned identity, the history of culture, ‘a fascinating study of someone who lives her life through others.’

“It got off to a good start, I very much enjoyed her early life, her friendship with Tracey, parents, school et al. It felt authentic and relevant, possibly to Smith’s own experience. However, I began to lose touch as the Aimee story developed and at this point couldn’t see where it was going, it seems to be rambling on in a rather contrived way. Hoping it will come together in the end.”

“Too many characters, too many threads that didn’t tie together. The story of Lamin and his sister for example, which touches on Islamic Extremism. This could have been very interesting, but wasn’t given enough space. Another interesting thread –

Jeni LeGon (1916 – 2012), was a real-life American dancer, dance instructor, and actress. She was one of the first African-American women to establish a solo career in tap. Does ingrained racism deprive Tracey of a great career?

What was Aimee’s motivation? Is she beyond the bounds of normal rules because of her wealth? Does the narrator reveal details of the adoption because she thinks it’s wrong, or for revenge? Parallels were drawn with Madonna, and with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group

For whom the bell tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels.

There was a mixed reaction to ‘For whom the bell tolls.’ About half finished the book and half didn’t. Those who finished it gave it high scores praising the characterisation, sense of place and themes discussed.  Those who didn’t finish it criticized the stilted writing style, and the fact that it took far too long to get to the point and needed major editing. We spent quite a while discussing the two women in the book. Some praised the love Robert Jordan had for Maria , while others felt Maria was too submissive and felt that Robert Jordan always calling her little rabbit was derogatory and was an expression of Hemingway’s view of women. There was much indignation over criticism of Maria as a weak character as she had been raped several times and seen her parents killed so would be psychologically damaged in some way. Pilar, on the other hand, is portrayed as a very strong, almost masculine woman – a matriarch. There was protest that Hemingway had shown these two extremes of womenhood and where was the ordinary woman?  Kulwant felt Pilar was a pimp for Maria. He had also seen Maria as a picture of Spain and Robert’s love for her as a picture of his love for Spain. Another aspect of our discussion was about the theme of death and killing in the book: how the soldier needs to distance himself from the people he kills but even then he is affected like Pablo is, and the issue of suicide whether it is cowardice or it enables them to die with dignity rather than being left to their fate in the hands of the enemy. After this lively discussion the scores ranged from 4 to 9 with those scoring on these polar opposites justifying their reasons and continuing on with their debate over the nibbles afterwards! The average score was 7 out of 10 and some of those who had not finished the book left motivated to do so.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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West Norwood Library Reading group read His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet in November and most members of the group enjoyed it with only a couple who didn’t particularly like the story. The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae. A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence. Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

Here is a few of the groups comments:

One member said the beginning was not gripping enough however the story progressed quite well and made them feel sorry for Roderick. Others added the village was well described and reminiscent of small remote villages in Scotland.

The novel was clearly written, easy to read and beautifully described. The ending was predestined due to the period in which it was written. Nonetheless the story was still enjoyable. The characters were very interesting and well described. The whole atmosphere of the place and story reminded them of ‘Burial Rites‘ by Hannah Kent.
Someone said “It makes you understand what it is like to be constantly judged and often manipulated by those in authority”. It was a brilliant evocation of the period and condition of the villagers’ lives. They were the product of their time. Roderick father’s behaviour was that of the depressed and sad widower however it was not recognised as such. Roderick, a bright boy is resigned to the life he knows in the village even when presented with an opportunity. The toddler twins were completely dismissed, the sister made to take on the role of the mother after the latter’s death. Just like in many countries around that time, people were only useful if they could contribute something. Most of them were accepting of their fates. “I did not realise how oppressive the lives of the Crofters were”.

One reader, however, thought the story was relentlessly grim and was laboured. They believed the medical examination of the murdered girl was not consistent with the crime. Another added “I agree the novel was well written and easy to read. However it was not an original story. One could foresee the ending. It nonetheless was a fairly well done piece of work.”. His bloody project by Graeme Macrae Burnet received a score of 4/5

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group