The Girls by Emma Cline




It’s the summer of 1969. In California, a young girl is unwittingly caught up in unthinkable violence, and a decision made at this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, will shape her life. The girls. at their centre, Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?

Our meeting opened with someone who didn’t rate the book highly at all, finding the writing rather amateurish and grammatically dubious. This was challenged later by others who felt the writing reflected the 1st person narratives of a 14 year-old and a middle-aged woman stuck in limbo because of the traumas of the past.

We seemed to agree, I think, that the characters were interesting and complex, and we grew most animated/emotional when we tried to tackle the character of Russell and his abuse of the children of the ranch. There were some interesting ideas put forward, comparing Russell (or a cult leader in general) to other religious icons, and although there was strong disagreement it was worth having the debate, as an attempt to understand why people can be manipulated/motivated to follow a strong leader (in the case of the book, someone with no moral compass).

We overall felt Cline competently handled the build up to the murder, with lots of foreshadowing and enough background information to help the reader understand how the events could have come about as a result of the disenfranchisement of vulnerable children. Someone made the comment that is was a deeply “cynical” book, and there was a consensus of relief at the inclusion of the character Tom (albeit for only a few pages) as a contrast to the rest of the predatory/pathetic men.

We rated Emma Cline’s The Girls 8 out of 10 with scores ranging from 2 to 9.

Rita, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group


South Lambeth Library Crime Reading Group


359lIt’s the nearly the end of January and I have my Crime Reading Group the following day, but something terrible has happened…. I don’t have the next  book lined up. Into the library walks Lyn, an avid crime and thriller reader who attends the group. ‘What shall I do?’ I wail to her. But Lyn has a great idea, ‘Why don’t you chose an author and we can chose one of their books?’. Great idea. So we scan the shelves and chose Janet Evanovich because I like her book covers (yes I know). I put the idea to the group the following day and they all agreed so we each selected one book. They were:

  1. The Scam
  2. The Job
  3. The Chase
  4. Curious Minds

Leaving aside the fact that the first three books were co-written with Lee Goldberg and the last with Phoeph Sutton, we took on this new challenge to our usual reading group format and off we went with our Janet Evanovich books.

Fast forward one month and the four of us (yes we are a very small group so come along if you fancy!), settle down with our respective books. The conversation goes something like this:

Lyn: I read The Job. It’s about Kate, Special FBI agent and Nick, ex-con, stealing artwork from super-criminals; they have access to millions of dollars to pull the job off…..

Me: Hang on a minute that’s the book I read and it’s called The Chase. Kate and Nick have to steal a precious Chinese relic from a super-criminal and three paintings by Rembrandt from a museum in Canada. Fortunately they also have millions of dollars to spend on equipment to pull off the jobs.

Lyn: I definitely read The Job and I quite enjoyed it so I borrowed the first two books in the series which were rubbish so bought them back to the library.

Moyra: The Scam sounds very similar, though no artwork was involved, instant access to millions of dollars and super-criminals were! I didn’t enjoy it much really.

Tony: I rather liked Curious Minds. Lightweight reading, a bit like an appetizer to a meal.

The Stephanie Plum series by JE was given some positive recommendations, but sorry Janet I won’t be trying them no matter how much I like the book covers!

So what did we learn from this experience? We wouldn’t have uncovered the fact that the books in JE’s Fox and O’Hare series are remarkably similar; that it was interesting to hear each others thoughts on different books; and why an author may fall into the trap of writing to a formula. Although actually I think we all know the answer to that! What we didn’t learn is why in The Chase and The Job a Toblerone bar makes an appearance in the closing scene with Nick and Kate! Mmm, I don’t think I’ll be dwelling on that for too long!

Needless to say no points were given but we all agreed we rather enjoyed this new format and would revisit again.

Miranda, Tate South Lambeth Library reading group

A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks


a-week-in-december-book-coverThis month’s book for review was A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks, which excitingly contained reference to the Oasis Hub in the Waterloo Library building (the café’s description is not exactly flattering, but it’s always thrilling to see yourself in print…)

The café location is part of a network of real London locations chosen by Sebastian Faulks in his quest to satirise the city and some of the events that have shaped it over the past decades. The author has done his research; not just into locations but into online worlds, schizophrenia and the workings of the financial crisis. He uses this research to construct a complex alternative London which bustles with concepts, characters and crises drawn from the real city, circa 2008.

By following a set of characters who struggle with defining themselves – with gaining power, understanding and a sense of self – in a world shaped increasingly by financialisation and the internet, Faulks’s narrative mirrors many of the aspects of the world we live in.

We thought that Faulks did not always manage to conceal the fact that his characters are vehicles for this research; in other words, some of the characters felt underdeveloped.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; the book’s description of London is as complicated as a tube map, and involves so many people and locations that it would be impossible to fully describe them all. The simplification of characters might also be an intentional move by the author. This is a satire of London, and satire usually involves caricature. Many of the characters read as stereotypical; certain traits are exaggerated and reactions simplified. This is clunky at times, but it’s this caricaturing that makes Faulks’ London resonate with our own. The inspirations for Faulks’ parodies are usually so obvious that we have no choice but to think about them.

Overall, we liked the book, despite niggling annoyances. While it can, at times, feel like Faulks is force-feeding us his research and perspectives, we found they made us think; while his characters can be clunky, the city he builds is nuanced. Moreover, by zooming between micro-and-macro perspectives on the city, Faulks led us to ask interesting questions about identity and reality in the digital age.

Sam, Waterloo Library Reading Group

A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle


A Star Called HenryThe book we were debating was Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in Doyle’s “The Last Roundup” trilogy. Published in 1999, A Star Called Henry follows Henry Smart’s struggle for survival in early twentieth century Dublin. The book is roughly split into three sections covering Henry’s childhood, his participation in the 1916 Easter Rising and, lastly, his involvement in the Irish War of Independence. So, as Maria says in The Sound of Music, “let’s start at the very beginning” . . .

I think everyone agreed that the first part of A Star Called Henry was perhaps the most captivating. Smart’s childhood is a curious blend of quirkiness and heart-breaking realism. Here, the fate of Henry’s younger brother and his despondent mother mixes with the farfetched antics of his one-legged, cop-killing father, to create a mixture that’s part Angela’s Ashes and part (for lack of a better example) The Commitments. This style and tone continues throughout the book; at 14 in the midst of the Easter Rising when Henry’s under-siege in Dublin’s General Post Office, during his time as a docker shifting back-breaking loads of phosphorous and mortar, and as he rides his “arseless horse” all over Ireland fighting a guerrilla war against the Black and Tans. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I really liked Henry Smart as a protagonist. There was a certain charm and confidence which came through no matter the situation. I was even able to enjoy the novel during the less-believable close-shaves or when Doyle took generous liberties tying the plot in with history. This aspect of the book was a main point of debate. Previous book club books have also traversed the line between history and fiction, yet Doyle did it in a way that most of us approved. Sure, it wasn’t realistic, but it was fun and we were happy to let Henry brush shoulders with Michael Collins or assist in the Soloheadbeg Ambush regardless. It was this blend of fact and folk-tale that gave A Star Called Henry an almost mythical feel – or maybe an air of magic-realism?

Another topic of discussion was Doyle’s use of language. Although Zadie Smith’s lack of speech marks in N.W was sometimes tedious, Doyle’s lack of punctuation added to the book’s rapid flow. Conversations were fast, free-flowing, rife with slang, innuendo and foul language, but underneath it all they were entertaining. And, ultimately, I think that’s what A Star Called Henry delivered in spades – entertainment – which is perhaps why the book earned an impressive 7.9/10!

Adam, Carnegie Library Book Group

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry


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

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

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

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

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

Sara, Clapham Library book group

The Sellout by Paul Beatty


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

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

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

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

Smut by Alan Bennett


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

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

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

Rita, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group