Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert


Madame Bovary by Gustave FlaubertThis book had been read by many of the Arodene Road book club mostly at school and given our age group some time ago!!
One or two of us thought that the role of women had not changed so much since this was written but that is a matter up for debate.
We started by considering if there were any characters in the novel that we liked or indeed felt sympathy with but there was not a consensus here the only one being that we did not have any feelings for most of the main characters including Emma and Charles., although there was sympathy for the boy with a club foot (on whom Charles performs an unsuccessful operation) and Emma’s wet nurse.

It tells the story of a woman who came from a farming background who married a doctor and whose life within the marriage was restrictive, boring, and unhappy. The novel gives detailed descriptions about how life in provincial 19th century France is about family occupation and wealth which are the determining factors in having a place in society. The novel says very little if anything about the lower classes.

Emma has little to do apart from reading romantic novels and daydreaming about a different and more exciting life. She has two adulterous affairs one with Rodolphe and the other with Leon both being a diversion from the boredom she had within her marriage and which her husband Charles failed to notice. In both these affairs she does not appear in any way to feel guilty.
We were all surprised about her conceiving as the novel portrays Charles as quite a sexless man. Emma would have preferred a son we thought because she did not want a daughter to face a comparable situation to her and that we concluded was why she was so neglectful and disappointed with the birth and quite heartless towards her daughter.

When they move to yet another provincial town it does not help Emma’s position and as she takes over the financial affairs of the family quickly gets into debt. She is extravagant in what she buys, things that she easily discards which is linked to her boredom and after one affair ends and then another. This debt and the embarrassment within the society on which she moves is her eventual downfall.

The end of the novel, to some extent, is sad in the way Emma takes her own life, an act of rebellion within that society, and how Charles starts to realize that he could have been a different person. Despite the fact there is no money and objects are being dispossessed he arranges a lavish funeral including having her dressed in her wedding dress. He feels guilty and lonely and despite the way she behaved towards him he still loves her.

There were different views about the novel, but it is difficult to dispute Flaubert’s writing and despite it being controversial at the time it gives an excellent example of French provincial life and the position of women and the overbearing society norms.

Julie, Arodene Road Book Club


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue


The Wonder is a historical novel that explores themes of faith, skepticism, and human connection. The story takes place in rural Ireland in the 1850s and follows a young nurse named Lib Wright who is sent to observe a young girl, Anna O’Donnell, who has reportedly been living without food for months, surviving only on water and prayer. The people of the village see Anna’s survival as a miracle, but Lib is skeptical and believes there must be a rational explanation for Anna’s condition.

As the mystery of Anna’s condition gains national attention, Lib Wright is brought in to observe the girl and report on her well-being. Lib becomes determined to uncover the truth behind her supposed fasting. Donoghue’s writing is captivating, and she skilfully builds tension throughout the story, making it difficult to put down. The characters are well-developed, and their complexities add depth to the narrative. The novel touches on themes such as religion, gender roles, and the power dynamics between the wealthy and the working-class.

Overall, The Wonder is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel that is both engaging and emotionally charged. It raises important questions about the nature of faith, the dangers of blind belief, and the consequences of societal pressures on individual lives. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and psychological dramas. Brixton Fiction Reading Group rated this book 3.9/5

Andrew Intelligence, Brixton Library Reading Group

No-one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood


No One Is Talking About This by Patricia LockwoodAnd exactly what is it that we are not talking about? This book seems to say we are failing to talk about the damaging effect of the obsessional use of social media that seems to be a new feature of many people’s lives.

This book will not be for everyone as it seems to expect a knowledge of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. However, it is possible to read it as a warning, despatches from the front perhaps: the war between real life and the deadening, demeaning world of social media.

Patricia Lockwood is a poet and this is her first novel, although she published a memoir/autobiography called Priest Daddy in 2017. By the way, her father started off as a seaman on a US nuclear submarine and then became a priest. There are autobiographical features in No-one is talking about this: Lockwood is a social media poet and one of her relatives gave birth to a profoundly damaged child. However, many authors mine their own past in this way, fictionalising their lives and those of their family and friends. She has contributed essays to the London Review of Books and produced a very readable account of falling ill with Covid.

The novel is in two parts. The first part starts with bursts of short prose, some of it close to poetry in its insightful and gripping use of words. This part is somewhat reminiscent of Ulysses by James Joyce, though nowhere near his brilliance and control as he wends his lengthy way through a single day in Dublin. Another flavour inherent in the book is the prose poem, especially Byron’s The Corsair. The assured use of language can help the reader to keep track of the content (there is no narrative, no structure and no characterisation) despite the lumpiness of some of the jumps. The tone is largely ironic, which can be a trifle wearing. Jokes come thick and fast, but they lean too far towards the scatological and are more than a little repetitive. The book accurately reproduces the disposable and self-referencing world of social media – and can be tiresome and too self-absorbed, just like the internet. Parts of the book seem a little dated in terms of appeal to younger readers. Chat rooms have been around for many decades. The good parts are the evocation of the disturbingly tribal, psychological bullying rampant on the internet, a virtual Lord of the Flies. Lockwood exposes the proto-fascist uniformity of opinion required on social media and how attitudes, whether praise or derision, change at the drop of a hat and woe betide the poor sap who can’t keep up. This is more serious territory although better covered in How do we know we’re doing it right by Pandora Sykes.

Generally, the first half is authentic and thoughtful, even though many of the tropes she quotes are well worn and dare I say it, out-dated in internet terms. But at least reading this book is a much better use of one’s time than doomscrolling social media.
The second half does a screeching turn into real life, tragedy and deeper emotional connections. The language becomes beautiful, lyrically evocative. Lockwood is indeed a poet. It is loosely based on the birth of her own niece, apparently born with Proteus syndrome like Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man. Some experts dispute this diagnosis and say that Lockwood’s niece’s disorder was related to Proteus syndrome but a different strain. The whole second section is well written and moving but one is left wondering whether anything in the narrator has changed as a result of her own IRL (in real life) experiences and from observing the suffering of her family. Apparently nothing. The damage done by her obsession with the internet to her empathy and capacity to love seems to be permanent. Who is more damaged, the narrator or her niece? This leads one to reflect on how we as individuals are changed by misfortune and disaster. Does it make us better people or do we rise to the challenge and then sink back into mediocrity? It’s a very interesting dichotomy raised by the book. These themes are well below the surface of the book. I was left wondering about the narrator’s relationship with her husband. He’s there throughout the book but is a shadowy, peripheral figure. For me, that’s the key message, if we spend so much time on the net, what are we giving up and how much is it changing who we are?

There are some interesting reviews that chimed with my thinking. In the Los Angeles Times, Hilary Kemp wrote that No-one is talking about this is “either a work of genius or an exasperating endurance trial”. This pretty much describes my experience of the book.

Pauline, Durning Library Reading Group

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite


My Sister, the Serial KillerThis dark comedy is set in Lagos; Nigeria’s bustling and dynamic capital, the year present day. Those of us who have had the pleasure of travelling to Nigeria can understand the great sense of place that Braithwaite creates. We can feel the oppressive heat; hear the cacophony of the traffic on Lagos hectic highways; understand the corruption of the police “the cost of driving your car to and from the compound is 5,000 naira” and appreciate the bureaucracy of institutions such as hospitals “who died and made you head nurse!”.

Rather than being a murder mystery, Braithwaite explores the relationship between the sisters, Korede, the sensible and hardworking nurse and Ayoola, the fashion designer and blogger, whose looks Braithwaite describes as a ‘phenomenon’. It is this relationship of sibling loyalty and devotion that creates the book’s comedy and takes the reader to the edge of your seat.

At the start of the novel Ayoola has just killed her boyfriend, not for the first time we discover. This one is called Femi, and Korede reliably informs us that ‘more than three murders and they label you a serial killer’. So, for the third time Korede is helping to get rid of the body in order that this family secret can be kept. It is when Ayoola makes a play for Tade the kind and sensitive doctor that works at the same hospital as Korede that she becomes concerned. Will he become her next victim? Korede has worshipped him from afar describing him as “a walking music box …and the sound of him lifts my spirits”.

However, the burden of clearing up after her sister and her jealousy cannot be absorbed alone. Korede confides in a patient; one who is in a coma. It is when that patient Muhtar regains consciousness that things become more interesting, and Korede is worried that this house of cards will come tumbling down! The tension in the book mounts and it becomes a cat and mouse chase with Korede trying to get Tade to understand that falling in love with her sister could cost him his life without giving the game away.
A lively read and one that as a group we unanimously enjoyed. At times Braithwaite alludes to the reasons for Ayoola’s behaviour but it is the joy in the writing that celebrates the creativity of storytelling.

Sarah. Arodene Road Book Club

Transcription by Kate Atkinson


Transcription by Kate Atkinson‘A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put sir’ she said.

Metaphors rather like half-truths and downright lies litter this clever novel which moves deftly between the 1940s and 1950s with the introduction and final chapter concluding in 1981. In the way that metaphors are representative of something else, the characters in Kate Atkinson’s novel are also symbolic of something else. Each character playing a different role depending on the circumstances.

The leading lady Juliet Armstrong is recruited to the Secret Service at the start of the Second World War. She is selected as she has no family following the death of her mother and her time at secretarial college has given her excellent typing speeds. She learns to shift between different roles and personae, often at the whim of her boss Perry. Perry is the master of duality as Juliet considers; ‘he has 2 selves, like revolving doors. Dr Jekyll may I introduce you to Mr Hyde’. In an attempt to hide his sexuality Perry attempts to seduce her and this become fraught with difficulties which she cannot comprehend, she ponders “things are seldom what they seem”.

As a spy thriller it has moments of tension which are softened by Atkinson’s use of humour. Godfrey Toby, the suspected double agent, a strange looking man with an overcoat, whom the fifth columnists believe is a Gestapo agent but is actually a British spy monitoring his informers. Juliet is planted in the flat next door to transcribe his meetings and listen in to the fascist sympathisers. Toby’s fate becomes entwined with Juliet’s with the unfortunate killing of Dolly who threatens to expose them. Kill or be killed!
When Juliet encounters him after the war, his return seems to trigger a series of reckonings for the lies she told during the war and expose her double life. Juliet has a fearless quality about her and as the main protagonist we hope will be able to overcome these threats and find some resolution.

The book takes at is essence that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Atkinson’s skill at writing about the mundanities of ordinary life with such dry indifference in the middle of tense drama makes the book a must read!

Sarah, Arodene Road Book Group

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain


Sacred Country by Rose TremainThis novel, written over 30 years ago, starts in a muddy Suffolk field where a family is observing the two minute silence for the funeral of King George VI. Mary, age 6, gets a sudden revelation that ‘a mistake has been made and she’s really a boy’. It’s 1952 though and it’s 15 years before she can really tell anyone.

This is the story of Mary’s journey and the author makes that clear at the start, but it is also the story of life changes for many growing up in rural Suffolk at that time. Many have dreams – to be a country western singer, to be an Olympic swimmer, to be a dental hygienist. Some are achievable, and even those don’t actually come to pass. On the other hand, the more unlikely ones do!

Penguin remarketed this novel in 2020 stressing the girl/boy theme which I found a bit cynical and I started reading with this mind set. I was quickly taken in though by the big group of fully formed characters, the strange paths people take to achieve their real selves. The devastation of growing up in such a stultifying environment – violence, mental health problems, secrets, life changing accidents, suicide – is laid bare and we hope for those trying to escape.

Mary’s own journey is explored in detail. The first person she finally tells the truth to is the local vicar – he immediately said she will go to Hell. She tries her doctor who says it’s because she hasn’t started her periods yet and he’ll give her some tablets to sort her out. A more philosophical neighbour, a cricket bat maker, says she was probably a man in a past life and that life hasn’t been totally erased. This is better but doesn’t really solve her problem. Finally a move to London and sympathetic friends lead her to a psychiatrist. A year later, and some rather amusing pretenses, she gets ‘the hormones’. She’s so happy to no longer have to bind her breasts but her journey is far from over.

I’d heartily recommend this novel – for the writing, the characters, the setting – as well as the whole story of the hormones, surgery, emotional requirements in Mary’s journey. Many thanks to the facilitator and the other book lovers of Radical Readers – they are a joy to spend some time with.

Suzanne, Brixton Library Radical Readers book group

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde


Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a bildungsroman of sorts, exploring Lorde’s childhood in Harlem which begins during the great depression of the 1930s and her journey through the various stages of her life as self-defined; ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’.

We are first introduced to five-year-old Audre who has a visual impediment which shapes her early school career; she learns to talk and read at the same time and devours literature. Lorde has a difficult relationship with her mother, who like her father was an immigrant from the Caribbean. She feels her parents favoured her older sisters. Her mother was immensely proud and refused any kind of charitable help. Lorde feels she doesn’t belong in her family, she is the outsider looking in.

The underlying narrative of the book is Lorde’s relationship with women. As a young girl she describes in detail a meeting with a younger child on her front porch, although the description of the meeting has sexual overtones, it is simply a friendship that Lorde desires. At high school her best friends were the ‘Branded’, a sisterhood of mostly white rebels who are united by their otherness. Lorde writes, ‘We even talked about our position as women in a world supposed to be run by men’. Lorde’s first best friend is Gennie, again another outsider, who commits suicide before her 16th birthday.

Through these relationships, Lorde begins to understand her desire to be romantically involved with women. Her first sexual encounter is with Ginger when Lorde is eighteen. Lorde’s narrative then vacillates between the overwhelming loneliness and lack of female companionship and the recounting of her various sexual/romantic relationships. These relationships include the older Eudora, who Lorde meets during her sojourn in Mexico; her live-in partner, Muriel; and, eventually, her comparatively short but psychically intense fling with Afrekete. Throughout each of these relationships, Lorde learns things about herself and becomes more self-confident.

Lorde’s youth is steeped in America’s fear of communism, and this reflects Lorde opposition both politically and sexually with American society, although she eventually learns to embrace these differences. Throughout the narrative, the systemic racism reinforces Lorde’s feelings of otherness and stops her from being able to settle. Once she identifies as a lesbian, her fight for survival is compelling and clearly indicates the inner strength of a woman living determined to have a voice.

Sarah, Arodene Road Book Club

Trees by Percival Everett


Trees by Percival Everett‘Trees’ by Percival Everett is a divisive book; some will find it shocking especially with the liberal use of four-letter words and the ‘N’ word. Taken at face value you may miss the message: it is a book written to administer a severe shock to the system.

The book starts out like a Whodunnit and presents a crime scene so bizarre and gory that you do not know what to make of it.
The setting is deep South in America Mississippi to be precise in a small town called ‘Money’ Mississippi. The author uses an event scarred in the psyche of American South as the backdrop for Trees.

We are introduced to a dysfunctional white family the matriarch of whom fictionally is depicted as the real-life white woman who had wrongfully accused a 14-year-old black boy (Emmett Till) of having looked at her funny and made some suggestive remarks to her which got him lynched and battered to such an extent that even his mother could not recognise him. The first murder is Granny C’s son Wheat Bryant, and the scene is not only garish but bizarre as Wheat is battered, garrotted and his body is mutilated. The scene gets more bizarre because at the scene of the crime is a negro man or boy battered and beaten beyond recognition and in his hand a bizarre object: Wheat Bryant’s severed testicles. The scene provides a déjà vu moment for Granny C, a throwback to the lynching of Emmet Till and the lie she had told; ‘I think I wronged that little pickaninny’

The first sheriff’s deputy to arrive at the scene is dumbfounded as to what to make of the scene. The case gets more bizarre as when the autopsy was to be performed by the coroner (Mr. Fondle) the body of the black man had disappeared and they were at a loss how this had occurred which introduces a suggestion of the paranormal. The next murder is that of Junior Junior under the exact same circumstances as Wheat, including the dead negro who had mysteriously reappeared on the scene now holding onto JJ’s testicles.

I won’t be able to do justice to all the salient points of this book that make it such an interesting book, as it would render this a lengthy review. Though it started as a whodunnit, it was not one in the Agartha Christie or Sherlock Holmes mode but rather one used to tell a more serious tale that black, and all lives should matter not only in Red neck America. This is more poignant when we see the killing of another black man this week by five police officers. What was his crime? He was driving recklessly. The irony being that the officers were all black. One wonders if the victim had been white, if they would have meted out the same treatment. We very much doubt. This is the message of ‘Trees’.

We meet Damon Thruff an academic who wrote a 307-page book on racial violence ‘Without an ounce of Outrage’- Mama Z. We see a different Damon when he’s had the opportunity to go through Mama Z’s files of every lynching that had taken place during her 105 years on this earth. Less than 1 percentile of all lynching’s were ever brought to trial and an even smaller faction of convictions. The author treats a very serious topic with a lot of humour. We see the humour in the names of people (Dr Fondle), Junior Junior, the three Asian detectives, called Ho, Chi, Minh etc. We are also treated to some humour in the exchanges between the two black MBI detectives. There is so much humour that one quite forgets about the gory tale been told. The killings spread to other areas and other races get involved and it spirals until it gets to the White House and are treated to the rants of a Trump Like President. In the words of Mama Z about her murdered father ‘’No one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. NO ONE CARED’’. The book leaves us with a question – its for you, the reader, to answer…

Some may find his language offensive, but the author needed to shock us out of our apathy to get the message that ‘All Lives Matter’ whether you are White, Black, Blue, Yellow, Green, Brown, Rainbow, or no colour at all.

Edwin, Durning Library Book group

Tell me I’m worthless by Alison Rumfitt


Tell me I’m worthless by Alison RumfittThree years ago, Alice spent one night in an abandoned house with her friends Ila and Hannah. Since then, things have not been going well. Alice is living a haunted existence, selling videos of herself cleaning for money, going to parties she hates, drinking herself to sleep. She hasn’t spoken to Ila since they went into the House. She hasn’t seen Hannah either.Memories of that night torment her mind and her flesh, but when Ila asks her to return to the House, past the KEEP OUT sign, over the sick earth where teenagers dare each other to venture, she knows she must go. Together Alice and Ila must face the horrifying occurrences that happened there, must pull themselves apart from the inside out, put their differences aside, and try to rescue Hannah, who the House has chosen to make its own.

A horror book, yes there were ghosts but the trauma, fascism, nationalism and cruelty of society are the real scary elements of this book. There were some traumatic horrible descriptions, we discussed whether these were appropriate and necessary and the group overall felt that it made sense very much in the context of what the book was trying to say (about the horrors of fascism) and the subtle trigger warning at the beginning of the book had us braced for what we would encounter.

When hearing we were going to read a horror book one reader assumed it was going to be boo-style ghost stories but was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t.
Although the less traditional horrors (contemporary fascism) are explored, the book celebrates classic horror novel symbolism too. A haunted house at the heart of it – some of our group were keen to pick apart what was real and what was not, but some of us were keener to pick apart the symbolism.
We discussed what drives people to far right behaviour, can it be outside influences, trauma or the social state of the country we are in? These are demonstrated in the book with Ila thinking she was attacked by a trans woman to the unnamed incel type man who bombed a Pride parade.

It could often be very funny, the 80s singer (a thinly vailed Morrissey) on a poster but with eyes poked out coming to haunt Alice’s one night stand (the worst one-night stand ever we all agreed!). Also, Ila getting very speedily cancelled on the internet and as the book’s symbolism around British racism grows, Rumfitt includes the Stewart Lee quote/joke “These days you get arrested and thrown in jail if you say you’re English!”.

Much of the book follows Ila and Alice, ex best friends who are living separate lives but share a trauma that you slowly learn about in the book. You discover it’s connected to an experience they had in a haunted house. A house called Albion. It becomes obvious through the impact that the house has on visitors and the wider community that the house ‘Albion’ aka Britain is poisoning, traumatising and often killing people.

The book is also largely about relationships, the love/hate pull that Alice and Ila have. But also the separation their friend Hannah has as the third wheel.

Some of the writing we felt could have been more succinct, there was a long passage when Alice was doing sex work which felt like endless fetish keywords! But maybe that was the point.

We discussed how the book dealt with fetishization of fascism, how power dynamics in romantic and sexual relationships can exploit language in fascism. This again is reflected in Alice’s sex work, where clients interested in degradation of themselves and the sex worker. Similar derogatory language, which usually would be taboo although possibly in the characters’ heads, were being said by the characters by the energy of the house.

About half of us had read horror before and the other half hadn’t. So, it was interesting to discuss the hallmarks of horror novels. We also imagined if it had been a film, deciding that some of the scenes would truly be too gruesome.

It felt like a very, very contemporary book, the symbolism about the darker politics creeping into British society felt very current. The book made reference to current politicians and political movements. The book explored trans identity, lesbian relationships and BDSM. We compared it at times to themes in other books we had read in the group.
We all thought it was a very good book, none of us felt disgusted or that the violence or horror in the book was inappropriate. We in fact found it a real page turner and easy to read. We felt comfortable and communal in our appreciation for it. But not for the faint hearted!

Overall our rating was that it was great – an average score of 7.25 out of 10!

Colette, Lambeth Libraries LGBTQ+ Reading Group. The group meets monthly online.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka


The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan KarunatilakaWinner of the 2022 Booker Prize.

Set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the story tells of the challenges and ethical dilemmas of war photographer, Maali Almeida, who is tasked with solving his own murder. The story follows Maali as he deals with an afterlife of administrative red tape, memories of the horrific war, his own ethical dilemmas, and his awkward relationship with his mother, his girlfriend Jaki and his boyfriend DD. Maali is constantly interrupted by the dead breezing through the afterlife, as he struggles to unravel his own death and ensure his legacy has an impact.

In the afterlife Maali meets several interesting characters, some are former humans still processing their current situation and some simply refusing to move on to whatever comes next, others are demons and spirit animals. He meets Sena, a spirit who tries to recruit Maali to his band of spirits bent on revenge in the service of Mahakali, a fierce deity or demon associated with universal power, time, life, death, and both rebirth and liberation.

Another character he meets is Dr. Ranee, who is busy trying to deal with numerous ghostly new arrivals to the afterlife, including Maali. She is tasked with ensuring the newly departed are on the right path and can move on within the seven-moon period each are allotted. Seven moons in this case are seven days.

Maali has two mysteries to solve. He has left a box of photographs which not only illustrate the brutality of the conflict but also name names of those involved, on all sides. These are soon discovered by a government minister and the detectives investigating Maali’s disappearance so he must try to communicate the location of the negatives to his friends. He hopes that once they are on display in a gallery people will see what is really going on. For this he must learn how to whisper to the living.

The second mystery is that of who was responsible for his death. The author set the book in 1989, as this was when killings were at their peak. The Tamil Tigers, The Army, The Indian peacekeepers, The JVP terrorists and State death squads were all killing each other at a prolific rate. Although when he discovers who his killers were we realise that the motivation for the killing was neither political, ethnic, or religious.

Brixton Library Fiction Reading Group really enjoyed this book and gave it 3.8 out of 5 stars.