Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Standard

Girl woman otherGirl, Woman, Other is a beautifully written novel which tells the story of girls, women and those on the non-binary spectrum who all collide at some point in the story. A sublime mixture of prose and poetry it is brilliantly crafted and the shifting narration allows the reader to explore the lives, experiences and ideas of black women in Britain.

Set in a single evening where Amma or Ams to her friends has the premiere of her stage play; we meet some of the guests who are coming to celebrate with her. These include Yazz, Dominique, Carole, Bummi, LaTisha, Shirley, Winsome, Penelope, Megan/Morgan, Hattie and Grace. Twelve characters in total who are all disciples of equality and justice.

The story is in part autobiographical; Amma, a black lesbian, set up a theatre company with her friend Dominique, and they struggled, as many young theatre practitioners do, to get their work acknowledged and seen. However, times were exciting and the experimentation in the world of the play was in part how Amma develops as a character. When we meet Amma now she is in her 50s and has her first play premiered at the National Theatre. A great accomplishment. However, she questions whether she has ‘sold out’ to the establishment or has she really achieved outside expectations. Evaristo herself was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s.

Amma has chosen to be a mother and asks her equally talented friend Roland, a gay academic to help. Roland for his part is more than a father in sperm donation and the birth of their daughter, Yazz, helps to contribute to the re-evaluation of his own work ethic and catapult him firmly into academia. Dr Roland Quartey is the country’s first professor of Modern Life at the University of London; with several books published and speaker engagements a-plenty. Yazz, enjoys her unconventional upbringing and has set her sights equally as high to gain a First Class degree in English Literature.

There is polyphony of voices which Evaristo portrays with sympathy, style, grace and humour. Each character has an incredible journey which mirrors many of those who came to the UK for the chance of opportunity and the belief that they may be able to make a better life for themselves and their children. Evaristo weaves connections between them rather like a suspense thriller. However, the final connection for Penelope, one of the most troubled characters will defy any reader to close the book without a tear in their eye.

Sarah, Arodene Road Book Group

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Standard

The White Tiger by Aravind AdigaCarnegie Library Reading Group met in July to discuss The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. One would think we chose this title in anticipation of South Asian Heritage month, but I think it was just coincidence. The White Tiger is the story of Balram Halwai’s life as a self-declared “self-made entrepreneur”: a rickshaw driver’s son who skillfully climbs India’s social ladder to become a chauffeur and later a successful businessman.

The discussion started with how much most had enjoyed this satirical novel, which is a darkly humourous and realistic take on the state of modern India, revealing what it takes to succeed when one is from the “wrong” caste and class. Balram was considered by most of the group to be enterprising, rare and unique, just like the white tiger of the title of the novel, as he starts off simply as Munna or “boy”, but ends up as a successful businessman, adopting his murdered master’s name, Ashok (also the name of the ancient emperor of the Maurya Dynasty). Balram’s act of murder was regarded pretty much unanimously as justified, as it was the only way he could rise from “the darkness”, the mire that would otherwise hold him down his entire life, perhaps to be cut short like his father’s, by a combination of hard labour, greedy female relatives and disease.

We thought the style and structure of the novel very clever. Balram tells the story of his life and growth into a businessman epistolarily to the Chinese “Premier” Jiabao, whom one of the group researched and discovered to be a real visiting official from China, who came to India to learn about Indian entrepreneurship, hoping to adopt some of the practices in China. Through this choice of recipient Adiga shows up Indian democracy for being a sham; destinies are still decided by caste, class and wealth, and the only way to rise out of poverty and the misfortune of birth, the only way to “be a man”, is to commit murder. For Balram “one murder was enough”.

Overall, the group seemed united in finding Adiga’s descriptions of life in India truthful and the characters very real. One reader said they could picture everything, despite never having been to India, so vivid a picture was painted by Adiga. We all found the tone engaging and the subject interesting and topical, and some thought the issues of corruption and social injustice were not only true of India, but relevant to all of us, especially right now.

Some found the novel slow to start with, but became immersed midway. Some found it engaging throughout, but not particularly memorable, whereas others quoted many choice lines from the text. Some found the language almost too flinchingly honest and explicit, whereas others found the stark honesty refreshing. Despite these different reactions, we agreed it was a good-to-excellent novel and a worthy read.

We gave The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga a collective score of 8 out of 10, with a range of 6 to 9.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Standard

My Sister, the Serial KillerSet in current day Lagos, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer is a fast paced and easy read. The questions at the heart of this book are focused on the stresses of love and loyalty. When one’s sister is a serial killer, what does one do? At what point do family ties break? How do they compare when pitted against the romantic or platonic?

Our protagonist is the faithful, dutiful and perhaps a little boring, Korede – older sister, nurse and crime scene cleaner extraordinaire. Our serial killer is Ayoola, the beautiful younger sister who seems to be the antithesis of everything Korede embodies. Over the course of the novel, Korede and Ayoola’s relationship with each other and with the other members of their family unfolds through real-time plot development and flashbacks to pivotal moments that let us learn more about the sisters’ childhood and relationships.

As Ayoola navigates her journey into becoming Lagos’ most unexpected serial killer, Korede is forced to evaluate whether her loyalty to her sister is stronger than her personal desires and moral compass.

The novel is a pacy, engaging read, and the group all found that they had sped through the book in record time. However, the group felt this book left us with more questions than answers and we struggled to decide which genre this book would best fit in. One group member said they had enjoyed it and asked if all ‘whodunnit’ books were like this as they did not usually read ‘that type of book’ but had enjoyed this more than they had expected. Another member said that it wasn’t a “whodunnit” and they felt it lacked the mystery and suspense of that genre.

We also discussed familial bonds and the relationships between women – we felt that Ayoola and Korede were strong, opinionated characters, but that their mother faded away into the background. Due to this, the novel felt like a book for and about the younger generation. This was further compounded by the use of social media throughout the book, especially the exploration of the intersection of social media and societal expectation. We noted the similarity between the performative mourning expected on social media after one’s boyfriend has died under suspicious circumstances to past societal expectations of women in mourning.

While we enjoyed the book as it gave us a lot to think about, we discussed why this book had won awards as we did not think it was particularly outstanding within any of its categories. We felt the book lacked depth and detail and could have been made more engaging by being longer and exploring the characters’ identities in more depth. Overall, we gave this title a disheartening 4.6/10 – one of our lowest scores.

Alex and Ellie, Minet Library Reading Group

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Standard

Pachinko by Min Jin LeeYeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story. Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Our group agreed that Min Jin Lee is a great storyteller with many absorbing and memorable characters and storylines within the book. We appreciated the detailed and well-researched account of the occupation and post-war life of Koreans in Japan, woven into the immersive narrative of Sunja’s family lives. The story of their struggle, integrity and determination in adversity sparked a discussion about colonization, war and immigration in general.

We all got invested in the characters lives. Stuck in a hostile country, they had clear motivation to better their life, limited by circumstances they couldn’t control. Sunja sticks to her principles, making the best of the limited opportunities she has. Sunja’s son Noa, who continues to struggle to assimilate and tries to be a ‘good Korean’, can’t take the stigma of being an outsider off. We could empathise with him, however, to some of the readers, the identity crisis and his ultimate choice seemed hard to understand and too abrupt. Although the time scale of Pachinko allowed us to get to know him and some of the other characters quite well, we felt that their inner life, thoughts and feelings could have been explored more as at times their choices seemed very black and white. There were also quite a few new characters introduced later in the book and it started to be difficult for some of us to stay interested in their life.

Overall, we found ‘Pachinko’ very a very engaging read and we rated it 7/10.

Magda, Waterloo Library Reading Group

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Standard

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanA techy thriller with a feel-good ending.

Clay has just lost his job as a web-designer in San Francisco thanks to the financial crash. He stumbles upon a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, an odd establishment with some popular titles upfront and a vast back section of mysterious ancient tomes which operates as a library rather than a store – with some odd patrons whose oddness is only matched by Mr. Penumbra himself, an elderly and enigmatic man.

Whilst creating a digital catalogue of the bookstore’s log books Clay reveals a code which leads to a visualisation of Aldus Manutius, a 15th century Italian publisher, creator of the modern book. Mr. Penumbra reveals the real purpose of the bookstore is to contribute to a secret society’s quest for eternal life. The secret society, The Unbroken Spine, is based in a vast subterranean reading room in New York City.

Clay has a circle of friends and meets others in the store who prove to have just the skills and connections needed to help Clay and Penumbra break the code and reveal the secret. But all is not as it seems to be. And when the secret revealed is not what anyone was expecting the real lesson of this tale becomes clear.

This book is an adventure novel, a fantasy quest, it’s a Dungeons and Dragons game, populated with geeks and nerds, played out in the real world of tech giants and all-pervading digitisation. A mixed reception from our group, but we scored above average at 3 out of 5.

Andrew, Brixton Library Reading Group

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Standard

Queenie by Candice Carty-WilliamsQueenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places… including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth. As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.

The story of Queenie is very apt for the times we are living in currently with Black Lives Matter being at the forefront of everyone’s mind. This is the story of a black woman who goes through the end of a relationship with her white partner and who seems to spiral very quickly. The book discusses topics of identity, sexuality, race and mental health; all very heavy topics for a 330-page book.

So let’s break down this review a little. Firstly, the characterisations; The character of Queenie is a little melodramatic and can come across as a little annoying in the beginning of the story. She clearly has issues with her upbringing (rightfully so) and the disintegration of her relationship only seems to serve as the catalyst for her breakdown, however, she is also a warm, funny and likeable (in parts) character. The characterisations of her family members is very well done, they are funny, understanding and caring. Author Candice Carty-Williams clearly put a lot of work into developing them. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Queenie’s friends. We never really get to know them outside of their interactions with Queenie, even though they are a main part of the storyline.

Next let’s tackle the issues of mental health and race; these are the biggest topics in the book and as a whole our reading group thought they were handled pretty well. Queenie is a complex and often irritating character but you understand where some of that comes from when she finally seeks help towards the end of the book. The unfortunate thing here is that this part of the story was left way too late in the story and by the time you get there you are so annoyed/fed up by the direction of the story and by Queenie herself that you may have given up all together. However, if you have made it to this point of the story you are well rewarded by a deep and well written discussion on how our upbringing, race and relationships can affect us in very profound ways. The message seems to be that bottling up your anxiety will only ever end in disaster and in the case of Queenie, some very unwise decisions.

One thing we couldn’t figure out within this narrative is why Queenie didn’t recognise Tom’s clear racial collusion and why it didn’t put her off him? He never berated his family whenever they were insulting or displayed micro-aggressions towards Queenie, nor did he ever directly defend Queenie. We all enjoyed the way Candice Carty-Williams dealt with issue of relationships in the work-place, Queenie’s story ended with her keeping her job and having a relatively happy ending, however, that is not always the case in most of these situations. Often black women are overtly sexualised and when a sex scandal happens in the workplace, the black woman (often considered the Jezebel) is unfairly seen as the aggressor. Okay, on to sex/sexuality; there is so much to say about this but I am choosing to keep this section brief, we all thought there was way too much discussion about sex and sexual positions in this story. Yes, it serves as a discussion point for how black women can by hyper-sexualised by society and that is indeed a conversation that all women should be having regardless of colour, however, did there need to be so much of it? We’ll let you be the judge.

Overall this is a great book and deserves most of the praise it has received and most of us in the group loved it and want more of this type of story. Let’s see what else Candice Carty-Williams has to offer in the future. A very well deserved 3.5 out of 5 from us.

Marie, Brixton Library Chick-Lit Reading Group

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Standard

CELESTIAL BODIES BY JOKHA ALHARTHIThis is the third book West Norwood Library Reading Group has read since the lock-down and discussed in our third online meeting. I’m relieved to say these new meeting platforms seem to be working okay, though admittedly not for all of us and I look forward to seeing everyone else back in the library with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. We are all aware that these meetings do take on a different emphasis but I think we’re making them work so far.

So our book for June was ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi about three Omanian sisters, their marriages, their husbands, parents, history, slavery and culture. The book is divided into short chapters narrated by the storyteller Abdallah, the husband of one of the sisters. The family tree at the beginning helps one keep abreast of who is who but some of us struggled with it. I was immediately gripped with Salima’s account of giving birth to her daughter Mayya. Then a few more pages in I was chuckling away to myself at the Omanian proverbs the slave, Zarifa, comes out with when visiting Mayya (one of the sisters) and her newborn daughter. For example; ‘The feet walk fast for the loving heart’s sake, but when you feel no longing, your feet drag and ache’ and ‘The flesh of youth? Old age devours it!’ The catty banter between, Salima, Zarifa and the Muezzin-Wife was brilliantly told, and I prepared myself for an entertaining book showing me a window into Omanian culture. And to a certain extent it didn’t let me down. However the brief chapters by each character became monotonous and as a result some of the continuity in the novel was lost. That said I would recommend the book. It is harrowing, entertaining and thought provoking and clearly conjures up images of life and landscape in Oman and the struggle to bring Oman into the 21st Century.

These are some comments made at the reading group meeting: ‘Struggled, needed to frequently refer to family tree, tedious’; ‘really enjoyed, liked the historical modern comparison’; the following comment made by someone who read this as an audiobook which didn’t have the family tree which was the disadvantage of reading it in audio format ‘the more I read, the more I liked the book, read it like an amalgam of short stories, could identify with the characters’; ‘got bored with Abdallah, disappointed’.

Score: 28/50

Miranda, West Norwood Library Reading Group

The Bead Collector by Sefi Atta

Standard

The Bead Collector by Sefi AttaLagos, January 1976, six years after the Nigerian Civil War. A new military regime has been in power for six months, but rumors are spreading that a counter-coup is imminent. At an art exhibition in the affluent Ikoyi neighborhood, Remi Lawal, a Nigerian woman who runs her own greeting-card shop, meets Frances Cooke, who introduces herself as an American art dealer, in Nigeria to buy rare beads. They become friends and over the next few weeks confide in each other about their aspirations, loyalties, marriage, motherhood—and Nigeria itself, as hospitable Remi welcomes the enigmatic Frances into her world. Remi’s husband, Tunde, naturally suspects Frances—like any American in Lagos—of gathering intelligence for the CIA, yet she is unconvinced. Cynical about the country’s unending instability, and alienated by the shallowness of the city’s elite, she willingly shares her views with Frances. But the February 13 assassination of General Muhammed prompts Remi to reconsider one particular conversation with her new acquaintance in a different light. Her discouragement overcome by a reawakened sense of patriotism, she begins to doubt that the bead collector is who she claims to be.

The brilliant Sefi Atta tries valiantly to examine the relationships between female friendships and the bonds between a mother and daughter in the midst of political upheaval. The book has hints of Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in its description of a post-civil war Nigeria. The book is very well written and compelling in its portrayal of Lagos life and the politics of the times. The character of Remi is well rounded and likeable and serves as the narrator of the book, giving us an insight into family dynamics and the very real struggles of a Nigerian family after the Biafra war.

Although the book managed to create a clear synchronicity between historical events and the clear effects on the people who might have lived through it, it unfortunately felt a little unfinished at the end. It felt a little disjointed in parts; why was there a bead collector in the first place? Unfortunately, this lack of a joined-up story telling meant that the book fell a little flat for some, reading group members also felt that there are other better written books out there about the Biafran war such as Half a Yellow Sun.

Though slightly disjointed and a little slow in parts, this is overall a brilliantly well written book, it is an easy read which provides emotional background to the Nigerian civil war. For younger readers who may not know that much about the war it is a fascinating introduction from a talented storyteller. A middling 4 out of 10 from group.

Marie, Clapham Library Reading Group

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Standard

undefinedThe Hundred Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson was put forward by a couple of members as a light-hearted antidote to the weightier Educated that preceded it, as well as to the current global crises. 

Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, Allan Karlsson is waiting for a party he doesn’t want to begin. His one-hundredth birthday party to be precise. The Mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not . . .Escaping (in his slippers) through his bedroom window, into the flowerbed, Allan makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey.

We wanted light-hearted and that is precisely what we got. We all found the book witty, engaging and funny to begin with; however, some of us were tickled throughout Allan’s many outlandish and improbable escapades, whilst others enjoyed the joke for the first 100-200 pages before tiring of the repetitive ridiculousness of Allan’s encounters.

We liked the idea of our centenarian protagonist breaking out from the metaphorical box society puts older people in, as he literally broke out of the old people’s home on his hundredth birthday and shuffled off on pee slippers to his latest misadventure. We thought the timing of Allan’s breakout significant as it was an occasion that would be publicly marked by local dignitaries and the press, but ‘celebrations’ of this ilk are often homogenising, classifying older people as ‘old dears’ or heroes, when they might be anything but.

Although Allan’s encounters with many famous and infamous historical figures were outlandish and highly unlikely, we were impressed by the amount of research Jonasson did to tie the satirical anecdotes together in a cohesive narrative. We pondered whether the novel could be classified a satire, a farce, or as slapstick, and decided it was all of the above: a farcical satire with elements of slapstick. We thought the text was translated very well, as comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right when converting from one language to another.

We found Allan very interesting; completely free from prejudice and disinterested in any racial, class or political divide, which one can’t help but admire. His disinterest, however, extends to everyone and everything other than the acquisition of a good meal and a drink, which is rather more difficult to admire, especially his somewhat casual attitude toward manslaughter. We briefly debated whether Allan could be labelled psychotic or a sociopath, but eventually decided he was just very fatalistic and laissez faire. Perhaps we were trying to ascribe depth and complexity to a very simple – an almost incomprehensibly but very comically simple – person.

To sum up, we found The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson frivolous and ridiculously entertaining, but not a read to remember. We gave a collective score of 7 out of 10, with a range of 5 to 8.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Standard

Transcription by Kate AtkinsonKate Atkinson’s Transcription spans two main time periods. In 1940 we follow 18 year old protagonist Juliet Armstrong as she takes her first steps into the world of espionage, albeit initially as a typist. Her job is transcribing the recorded meetings of British fascist sympathisers, a task as mundane as it is alarming. Soon though, her country requires more from her. In 1950 we follow the same Juliet Armstrong, who is now a producer at the BBC. The world is a different place and global political allegiances have changed. What impact can past decisions have on her future?

Brilliantly written, easily accessible and full of unexpected word choices both familiar and otherwise, we really enjoyed this novel. Indeed our lowest scoring was from an avid Atkinson fan who was unfortunately a little “disappointed” by this novel. In truth there were a couple of sections set in the 50s that dragged and made us long for the dark exciting 40s but overall the book is well paced and quite thrilling!

We discussed class, fascism, morality and cottaging (it was loosely relevant, go read the book!). Though some thought certain characters were “cartoonish”, the way in which the fascist sympathisers were humanised was both interesting and terrifying and really drove home how ordinary some of these people must have been. The novel is occasionally quite humorous and though one reading group member said it was “verging on silly” the line is never quite crossed. The everyday nature of espionage is really at the forefront of this book and the idea that former spies might end up working for other British institutions seems scarily likely.

An interesting take on the spy genre, Transcription is definitely worth reading. With scores ranging from 6 to 9 this book averages out at a well deserved 7.75/10

Alex – Minet Library Reading Group