Book 180: The Last Word

Posted in World fiction at 3:24 pm by Mark MacLean

The Last Word26 August 2014, at Suzanne’s

The last word was touted as Hanif Kureishi’s “… outrageous, clever and very funny story of sex, lies, art and what defines a life.” It is alleged to be a thinly veiled account of the real-life attempt by biographer Patrick French to reflect the life of V. S. Naipaul. Whatever the truth the book group expressed a fairly narrow range of opinions about the book.

None of the group gathered at Suzanne’s would say that there weren’t some interesting moments in Kureishi’s work. Most felt that Kureishi’s mix of bitchy humour and one-liners was enough to sustain them over the first 100 pages or so. Alas general opinion was that the book lost its momentum from that point and thence moved inexorably toward a slow death. Maybe this was because of Kureishi’s cartoonish characters and maybe it was due to the author over-extending himself. Many of us found the main characters to be somewhat remote and unsympathetic.

Not everyone harboured dark thoughts. Marion, God bless her, really liked The last word and found her interest sustained by the structure and the book and the character development. Similarly Jane found enjoyment in the book. There was certainly a strong central character in Mamoon and his relationships with his muses and also with Harry and Alice were complex.

Scores; Judith 5; Wendy- did not score this book; Karen 3; Helen- did not score this book; Simon 4; Suzanne 5; Joanne 5; Jane 6; Marion 7; Charles 4. Average = 4.9.


Book 179: Skellig

Posted in World fiction tagged , at 9:54 pm by Mark MacLean

Skellig29 July 2014, at Suzanne’s

David Almond’s Skellig was published in 1998 and was immediately successful. In fact, according to Wikipedia:

It was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and it won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British author. In the U.S. it was a runner up for the Michael L. Printz Award, which recognizes one work of young adult fiction annually. Since publication, it has also been adapted into a play, an opera, and a film.

Skellig got us talking, which was good fun.

I feel that, in general, we backed off with our criticism and allowed ourselves to experience the story both for and in itself, and as a mnemonic to remind us of books and reading experiences that we’d had as children or teens.

Skellig has won numerous awards … but is it that good? We agreed that, well, no it wasn’t. Some of the characters were particularly thin (the parents spring to mind) while others were robust and had worlds of their own. The story had loose ends, holes and question marks and yet … and yet … something in the writing (or in our preparedness to suspend disbelief and criticism) kept us turning the pages. And, in the end, the sum was greater than its parts.

Not everyone was swept away. Marion felt it stood poorly in comparison with, for example, Australian teen fiction of a similar vintage by John Marsden and Melina Marchetta. The Tomorrow series and Looking for Alibrandi meet all the requirements of Skellig whilst also developing powerful characters and believable worlds. But Skellig somehow charmed us; perhaps it was the hint of magic or other-worldliness.

And then we all got onto books that we’d read as children, and onto the whole “what on earth is teen / young adult fiction anyway?” discussion.

Our marks: Marion 5; Wendy 7; Mark 7; Jane 6; Karen 7; Helen 6; Simon 8; Charles 7; Suzanne 7. Average = 6.9.

Here’s a link to the trailer for the film starring Tim Roth.

Book 178: Dear Life

Posted in World fiction at 9:54 pm by Mark MacLean

Dear LifeJune book, but meeting held on 1 July 2014, Boreas Road

Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Dear Life.

I can’t even find the scores for this!

Everything’s falling to pieces!



Book 177: Coal Creek

Posted in Australian author at 9:51 pm by Mark MacLean

Coal Creek29 May 2014, Judith’s

Our second Alex Miller.

Look, I’m just getting this post up there so that there is a least a record that we read and discussed this book! I’m sure a review will follow. In the interim, Marion couldn’t make it (walking the Larapinta Trail?), said:

It’s not bad, fine really; I didn’t love it and it isn’t my favourite Alex Miller – gee that’s not giving it much of a wrap!   I think Journey to the Stone country is a much better work – richer in landscape, character development, plot structure etc.  Alex Miller is a fine writer but I’m not a huge fan (I’ve read probably around five).
The biggest problem for me with Coal Creek is the language mismatch.  The narrator speaks in his uneducated voice which is at odds with the beauty of some of Miller’s descriptions.  The former was really distracting and the tension between the two styles of expression didn’t work for me.
Others liked it more.
Marion 6, Mark 7, Judith 8, Suzanne 8, Jo 7, Jane 7, Wendy 8, Karen 8, Charles 8. Average = 7.444.

Book 176: American Rust

Posted in World fiction at 9:46 pm by Mark MacLean

American Rust29 April 2014, Marion’s swanky new inner city pied a terre

Wow! This book blew us all away; well, most of us. Charles had some reservations, which I can hardly remember now. Might have been to the “awkward moments” referred to in this New York Times review (which does, however, consider them to be “fleeting lapses”).

Like equally powerful The Yellow Birds, this is a first novel from an American author. Anyone want to put a review in?

Jo 8, Jane 7, Suzanne 8, Simon 9, Marion 7, Helen 8, Charles 6, Judith 8, Wendy 9, Karen 8, Mark 8. Average = 7.8


Book 175: Stillways: A Memoir

Posted in Australian author, Australian non-fiction at 11:10 am by Mark MacLean

Stillways25 March 2014, was going to be Marion’s place, if I remember correctly, but due to house moves Karen and Charles stepped in

Steve Bisley’s memoir. This from the HarperCollins website (with a clip of Steve reading from the book):

From one of Australia’s favourite actors comes a classic memoir of an Australian childhood in the sixties. Young Steve was a larrikin, happy-go-lucky, resilient kid, coming of age in a simpler time. Growing up on a farm cut from virgin scrub at the end of a lake, a farm called Stillways, Steve daydreamed about cars and escape. His story is about him heroworshipping his older brother with Brylcreem in his hair; going to school as a young kid with bus money knotted into a hanky and clutching his Globite schoolcase; fighting bullies at school and dreaming about girls; being amazed at the first television in town; remembering where he was when Marilyn Monroe died…

But there’s a darker thread running through the story: the father who’d take out his frustrations by savagely belting his young children; a struggling mother who’d do anything to protect her kids; a young boy irrevocably marked by his father’s anger. Endearing, funny, honest and unflinching-this memoir will become an Australian classic.

Okay, I got caught out here. I don’t remember writing a report on this book, or recording the marks, or anything really. All I remember is that people either liked it or didn’t like, or maybe it was just the stories of s@#$ing competitions that polarised us.

Sorry folks!


Book 174: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Posted in Modern classic, World fiction at 1:20 pm by Mark MacLean

Heart_is_lonely_hunter25 February 2014, Jane’s place

Wow: what a start to the year. First our Jesus/Mary double-header to get us talking, then Carson McCullers’ Southern gothic novel.

When this book was suggested I remember thinking that the title was familiar but I hadn’t read it, and didn’t know whether Carson was a man or a woman, young or old, east coast or west coast. I deliberately avoided Googling until after I’d read the book, and so I was astonished to learn that Carson was a 20-year-old female (23 at time of publication).

As with our previous two books, this novel generated a lively discussion that got everyone involved. We roamed from topic to topic, from racism and inter-war politics to class and cross-dressing. Some enjoyed McCullers’ writing style more than others; what came across as clipped or detached for one reader was raw and visceral to the next.

One thread that got us all going was the author’s extraordinary maturity when dealing with her characters’ values and aspirations. The person we probably discussed the least was Singer himself. He really did work as the perfect foil for the cast of characters around him to confess or dream or debate. This in turn led to a thread on when a book (or film or TV show or piece of music) is “right” (that is, when it resonates perfectly with the way the reader feels at the time) and when it is “wrong” (that is, when it creates feelings of dread or nausea or anxiety or antipathy). McCullers’ book was both a “right” and a “wrong” book for all of us, but was universally enjoyed.

For anyone struggling with the themes, motifs and symbols in the book, here’s a link to the Sparks Notes website.

Our marks: Helen 8, Karen 8, Charles 9, Suzanne 7, Marion 7, Wendy 8, Simon 7, Mark 8, Judith 8, Jane 8, Jo 8. Average = 7.8.

I’ve given Jo’s mark even though she wasn’t there. I actually received the “text of shame” halfway through, just as we were tucking into the last Portuguese tart. (Jane: you have raised the catering benchmark!) She managed to struggle through, though, helped by a bottle of saki.



Book 173: The Testament of Mary

Posted in World fiction at 2:25 pm by Mark MacLean

Testament_of_Mary28 January 2014, Simon and Helen’s place

Part I of our Christmas / New Year double header, along with Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

I read this on a Kindle and didn’t get a grip on its scale, though it did feel more like a novella. (At what point in the word count does a novella become a novel?)

The story takes place some years after the crucifixion (should I capitalise that? Sorry, being C of E I’m not really up on that kind of thing). Mary is effectively under house arrest, observed and interrogated by the delusion fanatics (my words) intent on building the myth of Jesus through a process of historical reinvention and attempted mind control. Which sounds rather conspiracy theorist but, in the hands of Toibin’s Mary, is simply told as the story of woman whose son fell in with the “wrong” sort of company: “men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye”.

We’ve had books ten times longer that have generated less than a tenth of the discussion. Were our readings affected by our own religious or non-religious backgrounds? What did we bring to the book? Was there any kind of Catholic / Protestant / Nonconformist / von Danikenist divide in our readings?

It turns out that the book has its origins as a monologue for the Dublin Theatre Festival, eventually going on to be staged on Broadway. It was so widely appreciated there that it was nominated for three Tony Awards; in response, the producer closed it down six weeks short of its run. Go figure. Wendy heard the Streep-narrated version, which has also had glowing reviews. Here’s a snippet.

Here too is the blurb from the Man Booker site, with comments from Ordinary People, and a link to the audio of Toibin talking about the book, via Helen.

Our marks:
Wendy 7; Karen 8, Judith 8; Marion 5; Simon 7; Helen 8; Charles 8; Suzanne 8; Jo 8; Jane 7; Mark 7. Average = 7.4.

Book 172: The Childhood of Jesus

Posted in Australian author at 2:20 pm by Mark MacLean

Childhood_of_Jesus28 January 2014, Helen and Simon’s place

Part II of our Christmas / New Year double header, along with Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

It was a tough ask for any book to follow Mary. On any other evening Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus might have fared better but that’s the unforgiving nature of the double-header.

This was a strange book indeed: Kafka meets Murakami in a Cuban refugee camp, or something. The story itself was a slippery thing that writhed and recoiled from any attempt at classification. Was it this? Was it that? If not, was it something else entirely? Or none of the above?

To be questioned as a reader can be exhilarating, and for some people it was. For others the endless and open-ended nature of the questioning wore thin; as Charles put it, it read like a Where’s Wally without the Wally. This ambivalence is reflected in our marks, which diverged much more than those for Toibin.

Here’s a review from The Monthly.

Wendy 5; Karen 5; Judith 4; Marion 6; Simon 8; Helen 7; Charles 4; Suzanne 5; Jo 8; Jane 5; Mark 5. Average = 5.6.

Book 171: The Fishing Fleet

Posted in General non-fiction at 2:15 pm by Mark MacLean

Fishing_Fleet10 December 2013, Jo’s place

Another year over, and our 171st book took its ritual flogging from the Disciples of the Purple Book.

Anne de Courcy’s history of match-making in the Raj got a pretty weak reception. It was certainly an interesting period in colonial British history but the general agreement was that de Courcy handled her material poorly. The main criticism was that every journal, letter and diary that came into her possession was wrung dry for the last morsel of possible interest, or not, as the case may be.

Suzanne noted that de Courcy was her deb herself, which may help explain the breathless tone in which all the chaps were dashing and handsome and all the girls were dashing and beautiful. Her theory that the chapters may originally have been written for a periodical (TatlerHorse and Hounds?) could also explain the higgledy-piggledy structure, in which characters are introduced and then, two chapters later, re-introduced.

We were all irritated by the redundant asides (“Jessica stayed with her brother-in-law, Topsy Kentwell, cousin of Stiffy von Buttrose, third Viscount of Mayfield, upon whose 22′ sloop Stinker Waugh set the inter-war coits record in spite of his tiger injury”). As young people might say these days, “WTF?”

I was prepared to forgive a fair bit of this nonsense simply because it told me a bit about India that I didn’t know, and my ignorance of India is almost as big as India itself. And for some reason I always feel guilty about this ignorance (and my similar ignorance of central and southern Africa) in a way that I don’t feel guilty about my ignorance of, say, South-East Asia or Central America. Go figure. Maybe I should have put that in a footnote.

Then we all fell upon the splendid, Raj-style feast prepared in sultry, Madras-style conditions by a team of unpaid coolies. Wonderful tucker. Marion, we thought of you, in your horned helmet and waist-length plaits, into your 39th straight hour of the Nibelungen.

Oops, nearly forgot our marks: Wendy 6; Charlie 6; Karen 6; Suzanne 4; Jane 5; Simon 3; Jo 5; Helen 4; Judith 5; Mark 6. Average = 5.

And how could I possibly forget the quiz?! It took on a decidedly informal tone this year. In the interests of the environment, Judith carefully recycled her cat questions from previous years. Suzanne raced away to an early lead but was pegged back in final furlong by Helen, but no one actually kept count and, as they say on the back pages, literature was the winner on the day.

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