Book 194: Cold Comfort Farm

Posted in Classic, World fiction at 6:08 pm by Mark MacLean

27 October 2015, venue TBACold Comfort Farm

We did have a book that we’d all chosen and agreed upon. But then we all forgot what it was called, and who the author was, and we realised that none of us had actually written it down. How can this happen? Are we really all that dotty? Apparently so.

In its stead we have gone back to a classic, in this case Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, which claimed the #57 spot in the Guardian’s best novels.

When someone with a functioning brain remembers the “missing” book, please email me and we can reinstate it as Book 195.

Book 193: The Illuminations

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:00 pm by Mark MacLean

29 September 2015, Chez BanisterThe Illuminations

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations.

192: Amnesia

Posted in Australian author tagged , at 5:56 pm by Mark MacLean

25 August 2015, Suzanne’sAmnesia

There was a general consensus that we like Peter Carey, most of the time, usually. Pretty well everyone liked the start of Amnesia, but it was how we responded to the second half that divided us. Suzanne spoke up for the “like” camp, those who were prepared to be carried along by its Dickensian sweep, vine-like plot tendrils and wonderfully imagined characters. There were however more people who felt let down by the second half; Marion even hung in there before throwing up her hands with barely 10 pages to go.

The lack of resolution was a common criticism, as was the cavalcade of incidental characters who provided nothing in terms of plot direction. And even the main characters left readers bewildered by the actions. Judith (by correspondence, recovering from a lurgy picked up OS) was the book’s harshest critic; she did not empathise with or believe in any of the characters. As she said (via email):

What a great idea for a novel. What a mess of a book.

Part One was certainly interesting, although, contrary to the blurb, it’s more about the past than the present. It certainly raised my expectations. Part 2 was the big disappointment. The book is said to be about hacking, but hacking as a plot element really doesn’t exist. Gaby is said to be a brilliant hacker but only is so in theory, and not in a way that affects the plot (what there is of it).

Carey is always interesting when he hangs plots on an historical episode or moment, but in this book he drops fascinating teasers about historical moments and then abandons them. When the book gets to the present there are random references to environmental concerns that seem to go nowhere. As does the plot.

As for the characters, none of them I found engaging. Not because they are unlikeable (I found Michael Beard in Solar engaging, and he certainly wasn’t likeable), but because they are really not very interesting. They all seem to be narcissistic, and in most cases interchangeable. And Felix is just a bore – I cannot believe that he produces a masterpiece straight off without any editing or rewriting. Perhaps the book improves in the 30 pages I left out at the end when I got too fed up with it.


I was in the enviable position of only having read the first third of the book and so I was still at the “rollicking yarn” stage. However, I couldn’t mark the book. So:

Judith 2; Jo 6; Wendy 6; Karen 5; Charles 4; Suzanne 7; Marion 6. Average 5.2

Book 191: Bel Canto

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 5:50 pm by Mark MacLean

28 July 2015, Mark’s placeBel Canto

What happened? No review?

Karen 6; Wendy “8 and 6”; Jane 7; Jo 8; Marion 8; Suzanne 8; Charles 4; Mark would not could not read. Average = 7 or 6.7.


Book 190: The Bone Clocks

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 4:22 pm by Mark MacLean

Bone_Clocks30 June 2015, Helen and Simon’s place

We had a skinnied-down group for David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but for those who could make it there was the usual lively discussion and good company.

For some, this was their first taste of Mitchell, while others had read several (or all) of his previous books. Sadly, The Bone Clocks was universally considered to be a poor effort. We were pretty well united in our feeling that the book was simply too long. It started well, with Holly Skyes’s adolescence in London being well painted and supported by convincing dialogue. But from there on in …

Each episode, in which a character from an earlier episode was revisited, could be said to be well presented but the overall lack of single clear narrative (other than the increasingly silly conflict between the Atemporals and The Other Lot Whose Name I Can’t Remember) left readers cold. The presence of some entire sections seemed inexplicable: what did the enitre Crispin Hershey bit add, other than a few laughs? And the rebirthing in the Russian peasant girl? And it was way too long.

This was a shame because sections of the writing were often engaging, funny and well drawn. It had the sense, however, of a literary author who has had success with a particular structure shoe-horning a rambling tale into that structure, adding a bit of fashionable vampire fantasy and ending with … a horrible mess. And – did I mention this? – it was waaaay too long.

The “climax” was utterly lacking in tension. We all knew that Xi Lo would reappear, and that Holly would have to find her way out of the labyrinth using Jacko’s amulet map. The tacked-on ending in a dystopian Ireland of the not-so-distant future summed up the book: cleverly imagined and executed, then botched with a twee finale.

Reviews in the UK have apparently been kind, though the NY Review of Books was less complimentary, describing it as “undisciplined”. That’s about the kindest thing anyone could say about it.

Our marks:

Judith 4; Wendy 6; Suzanne 6; Simon 6; Helen 6; Jane 6; Mark 3. Average = 5.3


Book 189: The Fisherman

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:12 am by Mark MacLean

The_Fisherman26 May 2015, Karen and Charles’s place

Chigizie Obioama’s The Fisherman was our May book. This report from Simon, with thanks.

Thank you all for your attendance at Charlie and Karen’s on Tuesday night, to discuss Chigozie Obiama’s The Fishermen. It was a great pleasure to welcome Mark back to the fold, following his sojourn back home, nursing his dad through his final days. We were sorry (but not too sorry) for Wendy and Jo, who had to miss an enjoyable and lively discussion. Both are currently flitting about the USA and probably not missing us at all.

The book was generally well received, but with reservations. Suzanne enjoyed it thoroughly, with Jane not far behind, but the rest of us were somewhat critical of the writing style. Obioma is a fiction fellow (a what?) at the University of Michigan, but one of our members was heard to suggest that his work sometimes read like something from Creative Writing 101. Personally, I couldn’t decide at various points whether he was trying to present the narrative in the voice of a young boy, or if it was just the way that he writes. (Judith correctly pointed out that, at the time the narrative was presented, the boy was an adult. Right.) Descriptions were good, but overly wordy. We came away with a good idea of what life in Akure is like, but perhaps we could have done without some of the information.

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for the accuracy, or otherwise of the above, since I had been on the go since about 4.30, including a trip to Sydney and back (obviously)!

[In the email, there’s a photo which for some reason I can’t repost. Simon’s caption reads: This is a photo of 1993 presidential hopeful MKO Abiola, who died in military detention after winning the public vote. He appears in the story, but I wasn’t quite sure why…]

We must be a critical bunch, because almost all of the reviews I came across raved about it! Some gushing I came across included: “One of the most amazing books I have ever read”; “This book is astonishing”; “Best book I’ve read this year”; “A powerful novel that reaches toward myth” (That one’s the winner)

I think the general opinion could be summed up by saying that we liked what Obioma tried to do, but we weren’t overly impressed by how he did it.

However, none of us disliked it enough to actually give it a bad mark! (See? We’re quite nice, really)

Marks: (Recorded by… Mark)

Marion 6; Suzanne 7; Simon 6; Karen 6; Charles 5; Helen 6; Jane 7; Judith 4. Average: 5.9.


Book 188: The Son

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:44 pm by Mark MacLean

The Son28 April 2015, Wendy’s place

Philipp Meyer’s The Son is the follow up to American Rust, which was a favourite from a year or so ago. This report came from Wendy:

In keeping with our history we were divided in our appreciation and enjoyment of the book. For some it was inhaled with gusto. For those it was the narrative, characters, structure and history that contributed to the pleasure.

For some who did not enjoy it the personality and actions of the characters as a representation of American history and culture made it difficult to read. We revisited our theme of balancing unlikeable characters with fine writing, particularly when assigning a mark.

Points of general agreement were that Eli’s story during his time with the Commanches was a good read. For some the other 2 characters were less engaging and most felt that Jeanne’s story had elements of confusion in the way it was presented. We were divided in how well we thought using the 3 personal threads worked.

Overall most people think Meyer is an important “young” writer.

Here are the marks.

Jo 8; Jane 6; Karen 8; Marion 4; Charlie 7; Suzanne 6; Simon 5; Helen 7; Wendy 8; Judith 9.

Average 6.8

Guardian review here.


Book 187: The assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Posted in World fiction tagged , , at 7:45 am by Mark MacLean

Assassination Thatcher31 March 2015, back to Marion’s for a very special occasion!

A 10 for the title alone. Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories was our February book. This report from Marion:

Most felt that short stories were not their favourite form of reading and that for many they felt them unsatisfying and by the time the reader has ‘attached’ to a character the story has ended.  Perhaps mood of the reader influenced the reading i.e. it is a different form of reading than that of a longer narrative. Some thought that reading short stories ‘en masse’ tends to turn the memories of individual stories into a homogenous blancmange. That there were benefits in reading them separately and that having sufficient time elapse between readings would possibly enhance the experience.

Mark’s view was that:

If an individual story has the narrative arc of a longer story (clearly defined beginning, middle and end) then they can feel like unformed novels; if they don’t have that arc then they can feel like sketches rather than discrete pieces of work’.

Suzanne thought that Mantell’s ‘black humour was piercingly spot on at times’.  There were comments from some clubbers about the two best stories bookending the collection i.e. the first being ‘Sorry to disturb you’ and the last story ‘the assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.

There were favourites but most people thought the Book club (sorry can’t remember the title) story was a bit of a winner.

Anyhoo….!  Down to the scores:

Mark 6; Simon 7; Charlie 6; Suzanne 9; Jane 6; Karen 5; Jo 6; Helen 7; Judith 9; Wendy 5; Marion 7

Average = 6.6


Book 186: The narrow road to the deep north

Posted in World fiction tagged , at 8:47 am by Mark MacLean

Narrow road to the deep north24 February 2015, Jo’s place

What do we want from a reading group book? Hopefully we want something that’s interesting and entertaining and informative, engages us, opens us up to a new world or place, perhaps polarises opinions but definitely triggers a discussion that’s broad and free-ranging.

We got that in spades with Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North last night. Our marks ranged from 4 to 9, and opinion ranged from “near perfect” to “boring”.

There were I think some key issues that influenced our enjoyment (or otherwise) of Narrow Road.

If this was your first experience of reading about this corner of the war then Flanagan’s descriptions of the camp, the work, the appalling conditions, the hierarchy between prisoners and their captors and within the captors’ ranks may have been revelatory.

If you or a family member had a direct connection with those who experienced The Line then this too could be a factor.

If you’d heard the author speaking so eloquently about the process of writing and rewriting the novel, his relationship with his POW father, his journey to meet former camp guards in Japan, then this might have influenced how you read the book and thought about it.

But all of us, to some extent, had the same difficulty: how to judge this work apart from its context. Its subject matter was so gut-wrenchingly awful that it seemed churlish or disrespectful to not like it.

Those who did like it loved it. The story of Dorrigo Evans’s rise from rural poverty to Establishment pillar beautifully evoked a period in Australian history when secular and class divisions ran deep. Dorrigo came across as a very real person, one who for some readers was a character from their own lived experience.

Those who did not like it varied in their reasons. Some disliked the “tell don’t show” writing style (“He was a womaniser because …”). Some found Dorrigo to be an unsympathetic, two-dimensional character. Others found the switch between point of view and character to be clunky and poorly executed.

All of us felt that Flanagan’s attempt to provide a Japanese perspective was a major strength of the book. Similarly, we all felt that the bushfire scene at the book’s conclusion was its weakest element.

But it certainly inspired a lively conversation that covered society’s changing attitude to servicemen in all conflicts, the concept of a “just” war (and what constitutes a just war, or call to arms, in the modern era), the huge gulf between the Australia of our grandparents’ and parents’ generation to that of our children and grandchildren.

Our marks:

Helen 7
Jo 4
Marion 9
Simon 4
Charles 6
Karen 6
Suzanne 8
Wendy 9 (postal vote)
Mark 5
Average 6.44444

Book 185: I’m Your Man

Posted in General non-fiction tagged , , at 8:43 am by Mark MacLean

i'm your man30 January 2015, venue TBC

[Sylvie Simmons’ biography of Leonard Cohen is one half of our annual January double-header. There’s a review here from the Guardian. I only include it because it’s written by a person called Kitty Empire. Why didn’t I have a name like that? Review from CH.]

According to Rolling Stone the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen “makes every prior Cohen book practically obsolete”. It’s fair to say that those gathered at Marion’s for our first meeting of 2015 agreed that this was a complete, not to say exhaustive, account of the life of Leonard. And therein lies the rub; with most saying that they enjoyed the author’s excellent scholarship but that they were peeved, to some extent, that our Leonard was lost in the minutiae. Indeed Sylvie’s attention for detail was too much for Mark who emailed “the human element was crushed beneath the weight of the detail that the author had so proudly amassed”.

That said, I’m your man certainly created a lot of discussion about the life of Leonard and his formative experiences in the sixties and seventies. There was so much to discuss including: the performers and personalities associated with Leonard: (Judy Collins, Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, Andy Warhol – the list is endless); and the many events and causes that Leonard became identified with (from the struggles in the Middle East to his many spiritual obsessions). Indeed Simon commented that, as a group, we may have reached the point where individual opinions of the book were clouded by our respect for Leonard and his remarkable life. In any case the reminiscences, anecdotes and observations made for a good night and a promising launch for our book group into the New Year.

Scores: Judith 7; Karen 6; Helen 8; Simon 6; Suzanne (emailed) 7; Jane (emailed) 4; Marion 7; Charles 7; Mark 3. Average = 6.1.

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