Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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Everything Under by Daisy JohnsonThis month, Upper Norwood Reading Group met to discuss Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. The story revolves around the search of a woman for her estranged mother, piecing together memories from her childhood living on a river-barge on the Thames. The mother, Sarah, and daughter, Gretel, shared a private language of made up words, centring around the Bonak: a word meaning “what frightens us” – at first in a generic sense, but which comes to manifest as a terrifying long-limbed creature rising up out of the murky river.

In the course of her research Gretel discovers that a mysterious stranger, who by the time he came to stay with them on the boat was a man named Marcus, was in fact her half-sister and, furthermore, was guilty of a terrible crime. This crime, and subsequent sexual liaison with her mother was foretold, in the manner of the myth of Oedipus, by Fiona, a trans woman with the gift of future sight – who ends the novel psychologically destroyed and living in Marcus’ adoptive parents’ shed.

The river is held up throughout as a place beyond the normal order of things – you don’t get police or child services down here, says Sarah – a “mapless place” where you can hear the “sound of dead men moving in the forest”. Some readers felt that the magical elements in the story were too unrestrained and ended up causing serious problems for the reader’s suspension of disbelief. How old is Marcus when he runs away from home and ends up in bed with his birth mother? How is it that Marcus’s father bumps into him days after his flight, having evaded his family, who actually live on the river, for over a decade? Why does Fiona have to live in the shed, can’t she sleep in a bed?

Other readers held up the part of the river as the door to the inexplicable beyond, the role of magic in the story and particularly prophecy, as reasons not to dwell too long on continuity. Spun in a gloomy poetic prose, macabre images swimming into view like Fiona’s visions, one thing the book is definitely not trying to be is realistic, and some argued that it was unreasonable to have that expectation of it. Needless to say, for others it went too far.

The use of language drew a lot of comment from readers, some of whom found the lyrical style of the book beautiful. “She felt the cold tapping of fear again, drawn tight across her temples, over her chest” was a typically involving phrase. Other metaphors missed their mark – Gretel’s claim that something her mother said ‘made her gums ache’ was met with confusion by some, and the description of a garden “sloping down like a lathe” was not felt to meet some basic requirements of sense. Some readers also found that the staging of the story across three, possibly four, separate timelines made it hard to keep up with.

For the reasons above it was remarked in jest that the book perhaps rewarded being read quickly. There was a general sense that there was a lot going on and not really the space to do justice to the book’s many themes. The idea of a private language, and its correspondence to the disjunct between the river and mainstream society, was not played out; the vanquishing of the Bonak jostled for space alongside the retelling of Oedipus. That the book failed to really meet its potential was possibly down to the want of a judicious editor, some thought.

Nonetheless, Everything Under secured some high marks from some of our readers – the final score was 3/10, reflecting a range of 0 to 7.

Will, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

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In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming

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In the Castle of My Skin - George Lamming.jpgSet in 1930s Barbados, George Lamming’s coming of age story is pitted against the backdrop of the collapse of British colonial rule. We begin by following the backyard antics of nine-year-old ‘G’ and slowly progress through turbulent school days in an age of imperialism (where students are given pennies on ‘Empire Day’) and onto adolescence where thoughts turn to leaving ‘Little England’. There are riots in Trinidad and opportunities in America – if you can face the naked racism of the land of liberty.

This autobiographical (though not an autobiography… too many character changes for that) novel by George Lamming is definitely interesting in theory. The trust in empire, the beginnings of riots and the betrayal of the people by Barbadian politicians were all good cause for comment. We discussed colonialism, imperialism and the common wealth; we drew comparison between the unspoken promises of England – the “Mother Country” as a place of prosperity and freedom, painted as an ideal to the Barbadians by the landlords and district inspectors who govern their lives – and our current political climate as Britain fights to remain relevant on the world stage amid the seemingly endless nature of ‘brexit’.

We had high expectations for this novel but were largely disappointed. We agreed (almost unanimously for once) that the book was slow and difficult to read – one member describing the prose as “Beautifully tedious”. The book is more like a collection of little incidents strung together than a cohesive narrative. In some sections the pages flew by but most dragged and we agreed could have done with a good deal of editing. There were humorous bits along the way (for example the school-boy discussion of how the king’s face is stamped onto coins) that shone out during our meeting, reminding us that there had been enjoyable chunks, but the overall impression from the group was not positive. 4.8/10

Alex, Minet Library Reading Group

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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WarlightLondon, 1945. The capital is still reeling from the war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents who leave the country on business, and are left in the dubious care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. Nathaniel is introduced to The Moth’s band of criminal misfits and is caught up in a series of teenage misadventures, from smuggling greyhounds for illegal dog racing to lovers’ trysts in abandoned buildings at night.

We all agreed that the novel was a story of two distinct parts, with many favouring the latter in which the mysteries of the first are unravelled and explained. We all enjoyed the vivid episodic adventures of Nathaniel’s youth, especially the descriptions of the riverboat rides with the Darter and the joyous scene in the flat with Agnes and the smuggled greyhounds bounding everywhere. A sense of childlike adventure is created by absent parents, empty flats, shady characters and secret societies. We enjoyed the inventive and fitting names: the Moth, the Darter, Marsh Felon…all are fantastically evocative of the personalities who own them and consolidate the ‘boy’s adventure’ feel to the narration. The sudden violence (although some reminded us there was some foreshadowing of this when Nathaniel was followed and jumped upon by some unknown assailants), however, shook the cosy sense of adventure completely. The one instance of grim and graphic violence when secret agents, including the Moth who had become somewhat of a father figure to Rachel, are savagely killed whilst trying to protect Nathaniel and Rachel from vengeful kidnappers, shocked us and the narrator out of the hitherto child-and-dreamlike quality of the storytelling into gritty reality.

Rose, Nathaniel’s secret agent mother, is the focus of the second part of the novel, with a much older Nathaniel narrating the story of her recruitment, training and missions as he uncovers them in his research. Many enjoyed the second part more than the first, as most of the questions posed from the first are satisfyingly and roundly addressed. We pondered Rose’s personality and the duality of her role as a secret agent guarding national security, and her position as a mother protecting her children. At one point somebody commented (it might have been me!) that it was great to finally read about a female character who had a bigger mission statement than just being attractive, a wife or a mother.

We all agreed Ondaatje is a master author, commanding the reader’s engagement and experience with writing that is sometimes dreamlike and sometimes clinically precise but never jarring. There is a controlled simplicity in style, but also almost poetical descriptions of people, landscapes and situations; a very good writer in our consensus.

Overall, we scored Warlight by Michael Ondaatje 8 out of 10, with the tight range of 7-9.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

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616ZHHIcWGL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_This month, Upper Norwood Reading Group met to discuss Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The book follows the exploits of Rick Deckard, a cynical bounty-hunter tasked with hunting down and “retiring” escaped androids, and John R. Isidore, a ‘special’, whose intelligence has been negatively impacted by radiation on post-apocalyptic Earth, but whose quiet empathetic understanding is the foil for Deckard’s self-interested calculations. Between the two are the androids, the philosophical driving force of the novel and the prompt for some of the topics that animated our discussion. Designed by the Rosen Association for slavery in extraplanetary mining operations, they are perfectly lifelike, and can be distinguished from humans only by virtue of the fact that they feel no empathy with other beings.

The bounty-hunters use a device, which measures microscopic movements of the iris, whilst they pose questions about hypothetical situations involving suffering animals – like an ethical lie detector test. The group questioned whether such a test gives the final word on the humanity of the subject. The androids tend to fail, but only because their technology is not sufficiently advanced to fake the empathic response. The bounty-hunter Phil Resch, on the other hand, passes the test, but has become so involved in his murderous occupation that he no longer waits to find out if a suspect is an android or not before retiring them.

Some readers pointed out the hypocrisy at the narrow focus on animal welfare. The story takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophic nuclear war, and more or less the only animals we come across are robotic imitations. The shadow of the great failure of solidarity hangs high over the desolate landscape that is the book’s setting and the remaining humans are cold and cynical with each other. The androids, on the other hand, display high minded preoccupations – the charismatic Roy Baty, for instance, is said to have organised the escape from extraplanetary servitude, motivated by a belief in the possibility of a common salvation for all androids, and an android spirituality that captured non-humans, indeed the creations of humans, as autonomous beings deserving of freedom.

It was a characteristic of the book that many found frustrating that it failed to play out ideas like this, instead returning to the ambivalent and often morbid interactions between unlikeable characters. This and other features made for a read that was “bleak” and “depressing” in the eyes of some readers. The characters undergo no kind of cohesive development and the denouement – a dream sequence undergone by Rick Deckard in the desert – was felt to be inconclusive and confusing. Whatever questions Philip K. Dick opens up for the reader, he is certainly not interested in resolving them.
Rick Deckard eventually persuades himself that to do his job properly – and secure the financial rewards – he has to purge himself of sympathy for the all-too-human androids and force himself simply to view them as insentient objects. Rather than moderate this position, he actually strengthens it after going to bed with the frank and disarming android Rachael Rosen. Readers didn’t find this surprising, observing that elements of this psychology exist in the present day with respect to the relationship between men and women. Some pointed to the research into sex robots being pursued by several companies; others, to the tendency for beck-and-call computerised assistants like Alexa and Siri to be female.

Readers agreed that Deckard’s wife, who stays in her room throughout, morbidly dialling for “depression” on the console which artificially determines her mood, was the only sane character in the book. The novel is maybe as much a commentary on the nature and substance of humanity as it is a story about people searching for meaning in the aftermath of nuclear war – that the book does not resolve is just a reflection of the fact that they do not find it.

As a story, however, some of our group felt that it did not do enough to engage you as a reader – the characters were not likeable or developed enough for it to bother you greatly what happened to them. That the book tails off into further indeterminacy at the end felt fitting given the tone of the narrative as a whole. We awarded Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a score of 5/10, which reflected a range of individual scores from 2 to 7.

Will,  Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

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The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena AttleeBy combining insight into the country’s cultural, political and economic history with travel writing, horticulture and art, Helena Atlee gives the reader a unique view of Italy.
The Land Where Lemons Grow uses the colourful past of six different kinds of Italian citrus to tell an unexpected history of Italy, from the arrival of citrons in 2nd century Calabria, through the Arab period of Sicily in the 9th century, to slow food and cutting-edge genetic research in the 21st.

Along the way Helena Attlee traces the uses of citrus essential oils in the perfume industry and describes the extraction of precious bergamot oil; the history of marmalade and its production in Sicily; the extraordinary harvest of ‘Diamante’ citrons by Jewish citron merchants in Calabria; the primitive violence of the Battle of Oranges, when the streets in Ivrea run with juice. She reveals the earliest manifestations of the Mafia among the lemon gardens outside Palermo, and traces the ongoing links between organised crime and the citrus industry.

As a group we weren’t exactly ‘blown-away’ by the book, but admired it’s historical insights about the origins of citrus fruit in Europe, and the many quirky details about ‘mutant’ fruits, bergamot and eau de cologne, recipes from many centuries ago, such as tortoise soup with bitter orange – very bizarre in this day and age. The rich descriptions were sadly not accompanied by any pictures or photographs, the only glorious illustration was on the cover. For such a visual subject, this was a disappointment. The writing was lyrical, the descriptions wonderful, but the text was rather repetitive in parts, interest waned, and the book scored an average of 4.5 out of 10.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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Missing, Presumed by Susie SteinerIt’s Mid-December, and Cambridgeshire is blanketed with snow. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw tries to sleep after yet another soul-destroying Internet date – the low murmuring of her police radio her only solace. Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big’.

Honest, insightful and refreshing, Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner has been compared to authors such as Kate Atkinson and Tana French, in part due to its wonderfully character driven story.  On the surface this book is a police procedural, with a gripping puzzle at its heart; why has a successful 24 year old graduate with high profile parents disappeared, and can Manon track her down? But Susie Steiner takes us into the lives of her characters, revealing secrets, vulnerabilities, flaws and deceit, proving this story to be much more than a standard crime thriller. Steiner has strong female characters, it’s almost impossible not to fall for Manon, a combination of Bridget Jones and Vera Drake. It is packed with dark humour and if filmed for TV, what about Olivia Coleman in the lead role? And it’s not only her major characters who Steiner fleshes out. There’s Manon’s colleague Davy, who loves a bit of police jargon – he says things like the suspect “‘has made good his escape’ with his ‘ill-gotten gains’” because he feels it “clarifies the lines drawn between good and evil”.

The story provides ample opportunity for commentary on power, authority, money, immigration, sexuality, race, and the concept of family. It all adds up to a world that feels much bigger than the novel in which it is contained; a grimy and depressing one where people do bad things, but one that is entirely believable. Here’s hoping there’ll be more to come from DS Manon Bradshaw. A solid 7 out of 10. Well written, cleverly plotted, good holiday read. This is the second book in the Manon series: Person’s Unknown, and a third in the pipeline.

Sara, Clapham Library Crime Reading Group

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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madame-bovaryGustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of the most influential – and scandalous – novels of the nineteenth century. Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent reader of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment and the consequences are devastating. Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857.

The group were delighted to read this shocking novel. Flaubert found himself on trial for obscenity as he set out to breach the accepted publishing norm re: sexual encounters. The novel is darkly comic and refuses to offer any moral message. The descriptive prose of town and countryside, clothing and customs is brilliant.  It works as a satire on bourgeois morals; as a feminist critique of marriage and society, as a comedy, and as a tragedy. It speaks to us today as a warning against our obsession with ‘reality TV’ and fame in a social media. We discussed the paradox of there being no description of sex but there obviously being a lot of it going on!

The group felt that there was a very different perspective reading the book as an adult rather and a teenager and reading it led to another lively discussion – the group enjoyed this book! One member laid down a challenge: Flaubert or Dickens? The latter being supreme but perhaps keeping the immorality behind closed doors… 9 out of 10 from this group!

Liz, Durning Library Reading Group