Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

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Dark Corners by Ruth RendellWhen Carl sells a box of slimming pills to his close friend Stacey, inadvertently causing her death, he sets in train a sequence of catastrophic events which begin with subterfuge, extend to lies, and culminate in murder.

At this month’s reading group we discussed Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell. The fact that it was her last book written and she died the same year added a melancholic tone to the discussion. The group was united in their belief that this was not her best work. In fact many felt that the publishers had rushed through the process, and that the book was really only Rendell’s first draft. This was due mainly to the plot’s loose ends and the fact that the characters are not fully developed. Many of the characters are 2-dimensional and wooden and the dialogue is very old-fashioned. The main premise of the story is good. Carl inadvertently causes the death of his friend and this triggers a chain of events involving blackmail and murder. The story has a sub-plot that interweaves with the main storyline in some way, though we felt this should have been developed further. Overall we were disappointed with this book and some of us vowed to read another of her books to get a better impression of Ruth Rendell’s writing. We gave it 4 out of 10.

Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group

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Phillip K Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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616ZHHIcWGL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The book in question for our book group was Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the SCI-FI classic which went on to spawn Ridley Scott’s cult film Blade Runner. I think I picked it because, well, who isn’t a fan of Harrison Ford right? He’s sooooo dreamy.

As usual, we started by discussing the setting. Published in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a post-apocalyptic 1992. Dick’s main protagonist, Rick Deckard, inhabits an earth ravaged by the nuclear fallout from “World War Terminus”. Although the majority of humanity has emigrated to Mars, Deckard lives in San Francisco and hunts androids for a living as a Blade Runner. One morning, after spending a lot of time admiring his neighbour’s pet horse, Deckard decides to capitalise on the bounties of six fugitive androids so that he might replace his own mechanical sheep with a bonafide real one. So we spent a while fielding pretty valid questions like: What’s up with all the livestock? And why is there also robot livestock? The cars can fly now? Why do Blade Runners hunt androids? Why did people invent such sophisticated androids that the only way to tell them apart from humans is administering a Rorschach-esque “Voigt-Kampff” test? I guess that herein lies one of the main criticisms of the book – that the world Dick portrayed wasn’t as immersive as we’d like it to be. As opposed to the water-tight realities of Discworld, Middle Earth or wherever Star Trek takes place, the future Dick depicted lacked depth and was tough to grasp. Sometimes, as opposed to giving readers reasoning, it seemed as though Dick was telling us to just accept what was happening and move on. But then maybe that was the point? Reality merged with fantasy towards the end of the novel as Deckard began having visions of the messiah-like figure Wilbur Mercer. Was this to demonstrate how subjective ideas surrounding life/religion/morality/humanity are? Or was this for some other reason entirely? Perhaps we should just accept it and move on?

I think the bulk of the meeting was spent debating ideas surrounding empathy. The emotion plays a pivotal role in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Dick suggests that empathy is all that separates humans from androids. Once a Blade Runner catches a suspect they undergo a Voigt-Kampff test to determine android from human. This test involves asking subjects questions in an attempt to provoke empathy and consequently identify a human being. This prompted some good debates as we started to discuss parallels between the treatment of androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the treatment of animals in the industrial food system. Do we feel empathy for slaughtered animals? Did anyone feel empathy for the androids? Does the fact that some people feel no empathy for slaughtered livestock make them any less human? What exactly does empathy entail? Why were we now obsessed with livestock? Is the treatment of androids more specifically an allegory of the treatment of slaves in modern history? These were all questions we chewed over like a mechanical sheep eating cud.

In the end, the book scored a respectable 5.2 out of 10.

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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9781408871768We are often quite wary of big award winners and rarely come back with a high score for novels deemed worthy by panels of experts. Lincoln in the Bardo is an exception.

The novel is by American short story writer George Saunders and is his first novel, which he first began to work on over 20 years ago. The novel was awarded The Man Booker Prize in 2017.

Written, or perhaps constructed, using quotes from multiple sources, some genuine and others fictional, it’s quite impressive how the author weaves these snippets together to form a coherent narrative, a story easily followed.

The story centres on the death of Willie Lincoln, favourite son of US President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of 11, and tells of his experiences in the otherworldly Bardo, a state similar to concepts like limbo and purgatory, a place where souls with issues gather to work through the internalised guilt and regrets holding them back from moving on to whatever comes next, or simply because they cannot accept that they are deceased.

Willie’s death causes the President much grief and anguish, at a time when he was not regarded as the national hero he is held up to be today. The civil war was dragging on and political tensions about the path the country was on led to Lincoln being perceived as a very unpopular leader.

On several occasions, grieving and seeming not to accept his son’s death, Lincoln visits the body of his son as it lays in a crypt in a Georgetown cemetery, prompting much interest and debate among the other spirits present in the graveyard.

In this context we are introduced to a cast of colourful characters, 166 ghosts whose observations and interactions lead us on Willie’s journey from sick-box, the term the dead use for coffins, towards his ultimate end. They are all concerned for the boy who should not be lingering in the Bardo as he has no unfinished business.

The three main spectres who tell the tale are the many limbed (along with eyes, noses, and mouths) Roger Bevins III, a Gay man who has committed suicide, Hans Vollman who manifests with a huge unsatisfied erection after dying before he got to consummate his marriage to his young wife, and The Reverend Everly Thomas whose sins are too much to acknowledge, even to himself. The spirits of the dead are all moved by the boy and his father grieving as he visits the crypt and holds his lifeless son in his arms. The story reaches its climax with Roger and Hans desperately attempting to reach the President in order to enable Willie to move on.

We rated this book 4.6 out of 5 stars. It’s an innovative novel, profound and thought provoking, its darkness balanced with warmth and humour. We highly recommend it.

Andrew, Brixton Library Reading Group

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

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When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman who sings to their children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint and is able to host enviable birthday parties.

The couple and nanny become more dependent on each other. But as jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase, Myriam and Paul’s idyllic tableau is shattered…

Because of the nature of the story, most of the members agreed that it was difficult to categorically say they have enjoyed it.  However the majority of them thought it was well written, was gripping and [SPOILER ALERT] even though the murders of the children were revealed right from the start they were captivated by the story up to the end.

Here are a few of their comments.

“It was such brilliant writing, the characters were well described and I thought most people could relate to somebody in the story”. “The description of the place and the atmosphere reminding me of the time I was looking after my grandchildren. Taking them to playgrounds full of child minders and hearing some of their stories”.

Others added that it really was compulsive reading but the ending was abrupt, there was no indication of what tipped Louise over to the point of committing the murders. Not enough information was given about her background. They would have wanted to know what made Louise the way she was, what made her a killer. Someone thought it was an interesting psychological analysis of human nature. “It evoked lots of emotions, unfortunately emotions that were appalling”.

However for one or two of the group, the story seamed clunky because of the style of writing, the constant change of tense, and they though some of the characters were forced to fit into the plot. “It made the story somewhat lightweight”

There was a fifty – fifty divide in terms of recommending the novel to someone. While some argued that it was a novel that would be difficult to recommend to anyone especially those with small children, others thought precisely the opposite. “It should be read by those who employ nannies as well as nannies themselves; so they all have an understanding of human interaction within that setting”.

The novel received an overall score of 4/5.  However, for the first time, with a few caveats such as: creepy 4- reluctant 4- uncomfortable 4, as well as a few double markings: 4 for excellent writing and 1 for likability of the actual story.

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

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51CC2jfysbL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Thank you to everyone who made it to the book meeting where we discussed Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman! Although the book was confusingly advertised as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it is now known that Go Set a Watchman was the draft manuscript which eventually became the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. The story sees a twenty-something Jean-Louise return to Maycomb on her annual visit. However, after catching up with her childhood sweetheart and reigniting deep-seated quarrels with her Aunt Alexandria, Jean-Louise starts to realise that life in her hometown is not as idyllic as she remembers.

Understandably, the majority of the meeting was spent comparing Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird. A couple of book clubbers hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, which added a fantastic perspective to the plot and the upsets that Jean-Louise faces. Here, the most significant of all is the change she discovers in her father Atticus Finch. I’m sure that everyone who has either read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the film adaptation with Gregory Peck (swoon) holds Atticus dearly in their heart. However, without giving anything away, readers find out over the course of Go Set a Watchman that Atticus isn’t as perfect as we all imagine him to be. Yet, no matter how each book clubber felt about this, I think everyone enjoyed Lee’s straight-forward writing style and her charming use of language.

Still, as noted by some, Go Set a Watchman did leave something to be desired. If the book doesn’t deliver the same warm and fuzzy feeling that To Kill a Mockingbird bestows, what does it accomplish? In the end we see Jean-Louise remove her father from the lofty pedestal she held him on. Some clubbers actually thought this was a bit of a cop-out. As opposed to tackling tougher issues surrounding entrenched prejudices and cultural values in the American South, all the drama boils down to Jean-Louise recognising that she has outgrown her father’s influence and has acquired an outlook on the world that transcends narrow-minded Maycomb. And so, while we all agreed that Lee’s manuscript is definitely worth reading, it was voted an average score of 4.5 out of 10.

Adam, Carnegie Library Reading Group

 

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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helenIt is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants. But as Diner’s passion for Lizzie darkens, she soon finds herself dangerously alone.

All of the Reading Group members present read the novel. They thought it was one of the stories that raised many discussions and ideas. There were lots of conflicting views, however most said it was a well written novel, a page turner.

For some, the background to the story was not convincing.  The behaviour of the ladies did not correspond to the period in which they lived. “In those days women were more restricted in the way they lived their lives. For instance they would not venture out alone especially if they were married. It did not feel like it was about the 18th century”. Someone else added that they were not convinced that it was historically accurate. Furthermore, the historical facts about France did not come to anything at all in the story and therefore they could not understand the relevance of it in the novel.

Others thought although the novel was slow to start, it became more and more interesting as the story progressed.  The characters were reliable. “They felt really plausible to me” someone added. It was really interesting to see how, although women in those days were in the background doing a lot of the revolutionary work and writings, they were still deeply under the influence of men. One member said they liked the fact that the story was character driven and really enjoyed the development of the characters.  The description of the place was atmospheric and palpable and makes you want to see how the city has progressed since that time.

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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lighthouseVirginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse was the focus of January’s book club meeting. A benchmark in English literature, Woolf’s fifth novel tells the story of the quarrelsome Ramsay family visiting their holiday home in the Isle of Skye. Not only is Woolf revered as a prominent modernist author, she was also a key member of the Bloomsbury group and since her death has been increasingly heralded as a feminist icon. So I think it’s safe to say that Woolf is a pretty commanding literary figure, but although some of us book clubbers may have been afraid we were all ready to brave the storm!

We began by discussing the novel’s narrative. Split into three sections, To The Lighthouse is told from various perspectives – sometimes the point of view jumps between different characters, while at other times you read from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Everyone was of a separate opinion here. Some noted that it made things confusing and usually meant that passages needed re-reading a few times before they made sense. However, on the flip side, this style of narration added to the effect of Woolf’s writing. Throughout the book readers follow different tangents and trains of thought – something that is now recognised as being quite characteristic of modernist writing. Arguably, this gives Woolf’s language a more visceral and ephemeral feel, which in To The Lighthouse has been noted to mimic the pattern of waves/the rotating beam of a lighthouse. I’m not sure if the majority of book clubbers thought that this was the overriding effect, but it did make for pleasant reading at points.

The book’s structure was also a point of debate. The three sections of To The Lighthouse take place at different times, sometimes skipping over a number of years. As a result, characters are lost and circumstances change entirely. Still, a few of us were okay with this as it gave readers the chance to revisit developing characters and budding relationships. The cast of To The Lighthouse were probably the main topic of discussion at our meeting. We spent some time debating whether it was Mr. or Mrs. Ramsay who lead the Ramsay clan. While it seemed that whatever Mr. Ramsay said ruled, Mrs. Ramsay was certainly the more astute of the two. She was a source of support for her husband and she also played a prominent part in the lives of all the other characters. The back and forth between Paul, Minta and Mrs. Ramsey after the couple showed up late to dinner highlighted this brilliantly. Yet, I think we all decided that she was fundamentally a positive force, somewhat of a compassionate puppet-master who’s influence continued even after she’d passed away. And then, finally, Lily Briscoe coming out of her shell and finishing her painting made us all consider just how autobiographical the novel really is (in regards to Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell).

Although one member gave the book an amazing 10/10, the group average dropped To The Lighthouse to a more humble 5.5/10.

Adam, Carnegie Library Book Group