Showing posts with label bookclub. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bookclub. Show all posts

Wednesday 15 May 2024

I was relieved to finally put down this 'unputdownable' book

The Couple at No. 9 Claire Douglas isn't writing books for people like me, but nevertheless I do have some positive things to say about The Couple at No. 9, so I'll start with those.

First, the premise is great. A young couple called Tom and Saffy Cutler move into a cottage in a village somewhere near Chippenham, Wiltshire. It's owned by Saffy's grandmother, Rose. They want to make some changes and begin with the garden. While digging the builders discover two bodies, buried 40 years earlier, when Rose was living there with her infant daughter, Lorna. Unfortunately the elderly woman has dementia and can't remember what happened.

Second, I enjoyed the first four chapters of the book, all of them narrated by Saffy.

That's about it. The more I read, the more I disliked, and only continued because it was a book club choice.

So, what didn't I like? The characters, for a start. Saffy is such a sap, often on the verge of tears, or frightened, "trying to keep the panic out of my voice. Oh, God, I’m going to have to ring for an ambulance. I’ve never phoned 999 in my life." Like many in the book, I mentally roll my eyes. Saffy's mother Lorna only cares about herself and I didn't find her actions credible. Rose was initially sympathetic, but this changed as the story developed.

I might have enjoyed it if it gave more than a passing thought to the motives of murderers and whether they can be rehabilitated. it is a best-seller tho', so I guess themes were sacrificed to pace.

The writing style wasn't to my taste either. It's told in the present tense, which didn't really work; sometimes Saffy narrates, sometimes Rose, and the other characters' points of view are written in the 3rd person. After a while all the voices merged into one; none of them sounded individual.

I usually look for professional reviews of any book I'm about to start reading and I found none for The Couple at No. 9. Even the Sunday Times, which had chosen it as 'Crime Book of the Month' hadn't reviewed it, other than providing a summary of the premise. It's described everywhere as 'unputdownable', which was not the case for me; although it grabbed me initially, the more I read, the more I wanted to stop.

Still, I'd recommend it to someone whose interest is in reading to escape, someone who wants simplicity of language, someone who associates with English middle-class aspirations to live in a house in the countryside rather than among the oiks. Slow, careful, thoughtful readers with a love of literary word-craft may be less impressed.

Finally, a quick scan of the reviews on goodreads reveals that many reviewers received a copy of the book free of charge. It's highly unlikely I'll be receiving a copy of Claire Douglas's next publication.

Thursday 9 March 2023

Virginity: the sum of a girl's worth

In the early 1970s Mum's American pen friend and family paid us a visit on their way home from Iran; the husband was something in US diplomacy. We wore our best clothes and had to be on our best behaviour. Our visitors had straight teeth and spoke with movie-star accents. They brought with them a small souvenir for each of us from the faraway, fairytale country about which I knew nothing. I still have my gift, a little mirror mounted behind small doors in a hand-made, hand-painted frame. I'd never owned anything so exotic, and for many years this was my only image of Iran. So when I picked up Jasmin Darznik's Song Of A Captive Bird I thought it might give me some insight into the country.

Saturday 19 November 2022

Waiting, interminably waiting, and then...

The Tartar Steppe Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe is one of those books where it pays to read something about it before you start. It's the sort of book they study in literature courses, the sort of book that you have to work at.

Fortunately the edition I have contains an introduction written by Tim Parks, but you could also check out the Wikipedia page before you buy. Buzzati originally titled it The Fortress, which is a better title. Most of us can visualise a fortress in reality as well as metaphorically, whereas The Tartar Steppe invokes a sauce I like to eat with fried fish. When the introduction tells you, "for an Italian, the northern mountains are the locus par excellence of military glory" it gives the title some meaning.

Friday 23 September 2022

Definitely, absolutely and without a doubt, 'my sort of book'

Small Things Like These Some of the books I read for Book Club are really not my sort of thing. I like to think I read them with good grace, and I really do try to find the best in them whilst admitting that I'm not the target readership for that sort of thing. Well, Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These is definitely, absolutely and without a doubt, my sort of book.

Thursday 8 September 2022

A book that starts with the ending

A House For Mr Biswas It's not often I read a book that starts at the end, tells the story, and then ends at the beginning, but this is exactly what VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas does. The opening reads, "Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time". No need to worry about revealing any spoilers then.

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Not a woman who bears grudges?

The Cactus I didn't have high expectations for Sarah Haywood's The Cactus. Goodreads places it in the Chick Lit category, and it's been described as endearing, heartfelt and charming. Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club, and like 'Where the Crawdads Sing', which was one of my most disliked books of the past couple of years, intends to adapt it for the screen.

The story is narrated by its protagonist, Susan Green, who in the first sentence of the book describes herself as "not a woman who bears grudges, broods over disagreements or questions other people’s motives", which implies that she most certainly will do all of those things in the following pages.

Thursday 5 May 2022

"Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many."

The Lying Life of Adults Who would want to be a teenager again? Not me. Nor, I imagine, the fictional narrator of Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults.

The book begins with Giovanna Trada remembering an incident when she was 12 years old: "my father said to my mother that I was very ugly". He goes further, explaining, "Adolescence has nothing to do with it: she's getting the face of Vittoria" his sister, whom Giovanna has never met. Piqued by a further description that in her aunt "ugliness and spite were combined to perfection", the young girl contrives to meet this woman to whom she bears a resemblance. As a consequence Giovanna discovers the working-class roots of her academic father, and learns that what adults say is not necessarily true.

Friday 22 April 2022

The legacy of apartheid

The Good Doctor Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, but at book club we decided first to read his 2003 shortlisted The Good Doctor.

The story is told by Frank, a middle-aged, listless doctor who "had swallowed a lot of frustration over the years" and works in a hospital where there are few, if any, patients. It's set in a Homeland region of South Africa, described by Galgut in the Author's Note as "impoverished and underdeveloped [...] set aside by the apartheid government for the 'self-determination' of its various black 'nations'".

Friday 4 March 2022

This was not the face in the doorway

The Fortune Men Nadifa Mohamed's The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and praised as an excellent example of historical fiction that explores present day issues, in this case, racism and injustice. But it's more than fiction. The characters are real people whose voices have never been heard, and the story is taken from a real life incident that happened 70 years ago.

Monday 7 February 2022

A cock that could drill a hole through stone?

Beautiful Antonio: Il bell'Antonio Beautiful Antonio ticked a lot of my boxes. It's set between WW1 and WW2, with themes including fascism, hypocrisy, and gender inequality. Unfortunately I wasn't able to give the book my full attention, and read large chunks without digesting them. So it's a good job Tim Parks, the British novelist and translator of Italian works, had written a helpful introduction.

The story is set in Italy, the Sicilian town of Catania to be precise, and concerns a sensitive young man named Antonio, reckoned by family, friends, and random women to be the epitome of an "Italian stallion". All is not as it seems tho'.

Thursday 6 January 2022

The worst of times

Autumn In simple terms, Autumn is about the relationship that develops between a 9-year-old girl called Elisabeth, and her elderly next door neighbour, Daniel Gluck. There's a lot more to it than that tho'.

It's a book firmly set in its time, that of the UK post-Brexit. Lack of funds for community services have led to libraries being closed, the way the Brexit referendum was framed has led to thoughtless tribalism, and the idea of protecting the land from invasion by foreigners is rife.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Latin, cockney slang, and teenage argot

The Emperor's Babe I'd come across Bernardine Evaristo's 2001 book, The Emperor's Babe, in a search for fiction based in Roman times. It had won a few awards and been named "best book of the year" by several newspapers, so after reading 2019's Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other I got hold of the author's earlier work.

Beautiful princesses and handsome princes

The Swans of Fifth Avenue Is the The Swans of Fifth Avenue a fairytale? In the Preface Melanie Benjamin describes the eponymous swans as if they really are talking birds floating on the water, rather than a group of rich American women who spend all their time buying clothes, having their hair done, or just doing nothing in expensive properties. Primarily tho', the book is about the relationship between writer Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley - the other characters play supporting roles.

The result of idle speculation

Hamnet Hamnet is the name of Shakespeare's son who died aged 11, but the book is not really about him, it's about his mother Anne, or Agnes as she is known in the novel. It begins in 1596 with the boy home alone. The narrative follows him through the house, setting the scene, introducing us to the players. In the second chapter we go back in time to 1582 or thereabouts and meet Agnes Hathaway and her family.

Can you trust your memory?

Burnt Sugar Sometimes you'll be watching a movie or TV series that portrays the ideal family, one where problems are discussed and resolved, where mothers dispense hugs and wisdom to daughters in equal measure, and you think to yourself, "what a crock of sh*t". This is what I imagine Antara, the protagonist of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar would think. Age 36, she's resentful of the way she has been raised, despises her mother who has recently developed Alzheimer's, but can't cut the ties.

A grim and fiercely joyless old lady

Great Granny Webster These days it's impossible to read a book without the gloomy cloud of Covid looming above me. Unfortunately Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster filled me with a despondency and ennui that might not have been so bad if I'd read it before 2020.

The eponymous matriarch is a "grim and fiercely joyless old lady". Her 14-year-old great-granddaughter is sent to live with her for two months in the hope that the girl will benefit from the sea air in Hove, where Mrs Webster lives. As the teenager is leaving she discovers that her father, who died when she was nine, regularly enjoyed visiting the old woman.

Wednesday 10 November 2021

A modern day Beowulf

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife opens with a female soldier, Dana Mills, "facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead." It's a powerful beginning which draws the reader in, written in the present tense with short, punchy sentences. It hints at an optimistic future too, as Dana's only comfort is the memory of "a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Monday 1 November 2021

Heavy themes, light touch

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World "Her name was Leila. Tequila Leila, as she was known to her friends and her clients." Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is the story of Leila and the five friends who loved her.

The story is in two parts: part one The Mind, part two The Body. In The Mind, we discover the events in Leila's life that led to her leaving home and becoming a sex worker in Istanbul. It's narrated in flashback during the brief time between her heart stopping beating and her brain ceasing to function; the 10 minutes 38 seconds of the title. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Leila and her mother, being female, have little control over their lives. There's a particularly disturbing scene that takes place when Leila is six, but in spite of the dark subject matter it's not a bleak tale because Leila is a fighter.

Thursday 14 October 2021

Don't believe the hype

Where the Crawdads Sing Here's one thing I liked about Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing. It's a vivid description of the onset of a storm: "The wind hit first, rattling windows and hurling waves over the wharf." The use of the word hurling is very evocative. Unfortunately, that's about the only positive thing I have to say.

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