Book 179: Skellig

Posted in Uncategorized 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.

That’s not why I suggested it; rather, it was Nick Hornby writing about coming across the book as an adult fiction author when commissioned to write a “children’s” book and, in the process, discovering a whole world of quality fiction of which he knew nothing.

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.


Book 170: My Beautiful Enemy

Posted in Australian author at 2:32 pm by Mark MacLean

my_beautiful-enemy29 October 2013, Wendy’s house

This was a strange book: no one hated but no one loved it; it was full of interesting characters and events and yet it was curiously bland and emotionless.

A recurring theme in our discussion was the lack of emotional connection between the reader and Arthur, the central character whose life is defined by a brief encounter with Japanese intern Stanley. Arthur was bafflingly passive: easily manipulated by the younger yet more mature Stanley, unable to ever move on from the crumbs of a relationship (if that isn’t stretching the term too far) that developed over a few days or weeks.

 The book seemed to offer glimpses that were never satisfactorily fleshed out. The camp itself, and the world of its inmates and guards, was incredibly interesting and yet never fully described. Characters such as Bryant, Arthur’s father, May and Stanley’s mother all seemed to have lives and motives that were alluded to without ever being properly explored. It left me feeling frustrated and empty; the author has written screenplays and so obviously understands the rhythms of storytelling and yet, once it became clear that Arthur and Stanley would never be reconciled, the whole back lacked any tension or locomotion.
Our feelings about the book are probably best articulated through our marks: universally 5s and 6s. As I said at the beginning, not good enough to love but certainly not bad enough to hate.
Judith  5; Jo 6; Jane 5; Simon 5; Helen 5; Suzanne 5; Marion 6; Wendy  5; Mark 5; Charles 6; Karen 6. Average =  5.4.

Here’s the blurb from publisher Text’s web page:

“Arthur Wheeler is haunted by his infatuation with a Japanese youth he encountered in the enemy alien camp where he worked as a guard during WW2. Abandoning his wife and baby son, Arthur sets out on a doomed mission to rescue his lover from forced deportation back to Japan, a country in ruins.

“Thus begins the secret history of a soldier at war with his own sexuality and dangerously at odds with the racism that underpins the crumbling British Empire.

“Four decades later Arthur is still obsessed with the traumatic events of his youth. He proposes a last reunion with his lost lover, in the hope of laying his ghosts to rest, but this mission too seems doomed to failure.

Like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Snow Falling On CedarsMy Beautiful Enemy explores questions of desire and redemption against the background of a savage racial war. In this context, Arthur’s private battles against his own nature, and against the conventions of his time, can only end in heartache.”

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