“This book was definitely Marmite” … just one of the fabulous comments about the books we read in 2014.
November 2014: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
From the Sidmouth Book Group
We rated the book (out of 5) on a number of aspects:
~ did you enjoy it? 3.5
~ could you relate to the characters? 2
~ was it well written? 4
~ did it have a good structure? 3.5
~ would you recommend it to a friend? 4
Overall: 3.4 out of 5
A few quotes:
~ ‘it was over long’
~ ‘found the science annoying’
~ ‘enjoyed the science aspects’
~ ‘didn’t warm to the characters’
~ ‘if I had to live my life again I would re-read this book’
From the Somerset Book Group
Roughly half our group (eight of us met up) thought this was an impressive book and one person felt it to be the best CGS choice so far! However, three of us did not get on with it at all. Thought to be similar in style to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
~ Clever, if rather mind blowing, idea of the Kalachakra living multiple lives.
~ Dense and descriptive writing.
~ Very thought provoking with issues of morality and selflessness.
~ A satisfying ending when Vincent got what was coming to him.
~ Too long!
~ Too much detail about Harry’s time in Russia.
~ Difficult to warm to Harry even though he was trying to do the right thing.
~ The ending was a bit too James Bond?
From the Colyford-Thursdays Book Group
The Group who gathered together to review this book was rather select but we had read the book or at least most of it. Was this a sign that others could not face reading it? There was a rumour – probably untrue – that someone had deleted it from their kindle as rubbish!
Well –what was our initial reaction? Very quickly it was obvious it was not just ‘What did you think’ but that with undertones of puzzlement and ‘did you understand what it was all about’. We all agreed that it was an interesting concept and immediately decided it was probably a ‘boys’ book or suitable for husbands with quirky tastes.
Our discussion then developed and encompassed more interesting details of the book – speculation on what would it be like to be a baby/toddler with all the knowledge of a past life, what was the significance of Jenny or Harry’s relationship with his father, stepfather or grandmother, did we like Harry and did we care about him, and what was the importance of his murder of Richard Lisle. The most confusingly and/or interestingly theme of our discussion was the whole concept of the time continuum – was it a parallel life story but it could not be because technological development had been changed. We all found it difficult to keep up with which life we were reading about because of the quick jumps from one to another and felt that probably there were too many lives!
Overall and after a short discussion on ‘what makes a book worth reading’, we decided it was definitely worth reading especially if you are over half way through because it gets better. We also felt that our discussion had enhanced our opinion of the book – maybe because it was helpful to hear different ideas about the concept. If anyone asked which genre it fitted in to we would be completely stumped – was it science fiction that turned into a thriller or a philosophical/religious/moral fantasy?
Voting – the book scored 6.2
From the Honiton/Ottery St Mary Book Group
Some of us felt the concept of the book was clever, but was an irritatingly mad idea. There were many levels to the plot and some found the book was a bit dense with to much to-ing and fro-ing, so had to re read some of the paragraphs to understand the scientific side of things. Each life different and it was interesting to know how he was going to steer each one but how and why does he make his choices of what to change? We found the main character unlikeable as he was a bit blank and therefore felt no connection to him. But we did like some of the peripheral characters and thought they were well written … was that deliberate?
Some felt it was a metaphor for modern life in as much as we are surrounded by so much information so get easily bored.
We also found some of the story lines disturbing at times!
L added …. The book is rather confusing in the first third of the story, which is why it proved difficult to press on with to gain an appreciation of the novel in its entirety. As the plot thickens, there is less jumping around Harry’s different lives and it follows a more linear structure, if you think of one life following another. There are also further appearances of some of the supporting characters, which add a sense of continuity. I was particularly interested in the idea of a spy story unravelling; this helps the plot gather pace and it gets more exciting. I like Clare North’s style, which remains packed with detail but becomes more accessible as you get to know the plot and the characters better. The book as a whole is an ambitious, but successful exploration of the dangers of technology and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding – the morality of progress, in a sense. The novel also led me to ponder about the benefits of action versus inaction in life, human choices and the powers of deception between Harry and Vincent.
From the Colyford B Book Club – Tuesday Group
Seven of us met to discuss the book and scored it an average of 7 out of 10.
All of us agreed that it was an original idea and very thought provoking. In fact it could be happening right now but we just don’t know! Although some of us might?
The idea that re-incarnation was automatic for some, the kalachakra, was an interesting theme in the book and that a club, the Cronus Club, had been formed to help and protect Kalachakra when they were in difficult situations i.e. being tortured. The Club also tried to control wayward figures such as Vincent and Victor Hoeness, who both decided to try to change world history. Vincent viewed the Cronus Club as staid and unnecessary stating ‘Why not use the gift you were born with?’
Most Kalachakra lived their lives over and over again, changing a few things that affect them, such as during the war Harry avoided areas that became council estates after the war as they had been bombed. He learned, as his lives went by, that some changes could be made for the good e.g. killing Richard Lisle before he became a murderer.
However Vincent Rankis was obsessed with accelerating progress, bringing timelines forward and in doing so he had no conscience about putting lives at risk. He was convinced that in a few more lives he could make his quantum mirror and in doing so discover the secrets of our existence, the universe, the future. However others felt that ‘For progress we have eaten our souls up and nothing matters any more’. He had one ambition ‘How to unlock the secrets of existence of our universe and its future? He was single minded and ruthless in his aim to build a quantum mirror regardless of any consequences upon the world. Each life he got closer to his aim by clever manipulation, by feeding ideas to scientists by anonymous means.
Harry played a very clever game sacrificing his own happiness in many lives, to ensure that he stayed alongside Vincent, making himself an indispensible and a trusted friend, in order to foil his ambition and ultimately kill him. The extent to which Harry was convincing meant that Vincent disclosed details of his birth, his final act.
Kalachakra could in some ways be compared to the character in ‘Groundhog Day’ in that he kept learning more in each life. There could also be a link to current day suicide bombers who also believe that they will come back after death, like kalachakra’s.
The book was fascinating in its concept, how messages were sent back and forth in time, how history could be changed, it was humorous in places and provided lots of background to make the main storyline convincing.
One member referred to a book by a psychic medium Tony Stockland called ‘Eternity’ which talks of selective re-incarnation for those want to return to achieve a fulfilled soul. Maybe Claire North had read this?
We would all recommend the book.
………….Is there a Harry or Vincent in our book club?
From the Exeter Book Group
I think it’s fair to say we all generally enjoyed Harry August. The ideas in the book were intriguing, and we all found ourselves pondering: what would I do, in that situation? We all particularly liked the way messages were passed up and down the ages, from child to senior citizen, and vice versa, or by leaving physical messages and clues. There was some great understated humour in the descriptions of the futures sent awry, and the disasters caused, by the introduction of technology too advanced too soon. Meanwhile the descriptions of the great machine being forced into being ahead of its time were enjoyably sci-fi while remaining tantalisingly vague.
Some of the group had also read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a different take on reliving the same life but this time with only hunches and feelings to guide the protagonist rather than actual memories, and opinions differed wildly as to which was the better book. We had an interesting discussion about the differences between male and female authors (I didn’t know this, but apparently statistically women tend to read more books by women authors, while men generally prefer reading books written by men). This was sparked from a comment that Harry August read more like a “boy’s book”, with plenty of action and adventure without dwelling too much on the emotional side of things. As one person rather aptly put it, Harry’s short but traumatic second life was a brief nod towards realism before getting on with the action!
We liked the exploration of different characters’ approaches to their strange kind of immortality; the mercenary fighting in every life so as to introduce an element of chance, the hedonist eventually tiring of her endless pursuit of pleasure and choosing to forget and to start again. It was interesting that Claire North had chosen not to give Harry August children, although it was unusually remiss of her not to explain if this was just by chance or, indeed, if his kind simply couldn’t procreate. As parents ourselves, it was hard to imagine raising children in a first life and then possibly being faced with taking a different path in a following life that didn’t lead to those same children. Opinions differed as to whether Harry could truly love. Most of us felt he was genuinely in love with the wife who inadvertently betrayed him, but why did he never find another match? And why did he never return to her in a later life and this time just not tell her anything?! Perhaps (to quote an immortal character from an old Babylon 5 episode) “to live on is to leave behind joy, love and companionship because we know it to be transitory … only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal”.
From the West Hill Book Group
General consensus was that the book was extremely difficult to follow and none of us had actually managed to get to the end of it!
2 members felt they would persevere as they were about a third to halfway through and wanted to see the final outcome, but the other members felt it really wasn’t their type of book at all and were going to leave it as unfinished.
Whilst we all felt it was a clever book, we felt it was not something you could just pick up and put down, but that it required full attention and also needed to be recapped each time you tried to read a few more pages, as you had forgotten or got confused about what had gone before.
Unfortunately not a favourite for the majority of us.
September 2014: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
From the Honiton/Ottery St Mary Group
A variety of comments:
~ I liked Apple Tree Yard at the beginning as it was unusual and I wanted to keep reading to see what happened but ending was predictable and a bit of a cop out.
~ I loved Apple Tree Yard, especially that last page, although it was a little predictable!
~ I had high hopes as I thought the book started well, but then the author ‘lost’ her way or focus and became felt it became ‘flat’ and ‘predictable’
~ Average score 5/10
From the Colyford A Book Group
There was unanimity amongst group members that this was a compelling, skillfully written, quick read. All also acknowledged being really interested and intrigued to understand why and how the central characters had ended up in court.
The court scenes themselves were singled out for praise, with lots of good, realistic touches and interesting insights – including the rather depressing one that the likelihood of conviction can depend as much on the relative strength of the barristers and witnesses as the actual innocence or guilt of the parties.
Some felt that it rather stretched credulity that this seemingly well adjusted, professional, mature, married woman would quite so readily publicly and frequently loosen her knicker elastic and embark with so little prompting or forethought on an affair – if indeed “affair” is quite the right word for a “relationship” where sex and coffee (both hurried) were pretty much all that was shared initially.
That said, there was sympathy/empathy for her boredom and disappointments – both at work and at home. For a woman with so many serious responsibilities and commitments the lure of the forbidden and the temptation to behave irresponsibly proved irresistibly seductive. The group were a little unsure as to why exactly Mark was so very attractive to her. However, we agreed that it was perhaps because he – initially – posed no threat to her otherwise, apparently well ordered, existence. He offered only brief encounters in which he put her at the centre of his focus and allowed her to feel valued and to escape from her humdrum but draining reality. And, of course there was the obvious animal magnetism and addictive adrenalin rush.
This contrasted really starkly with the rape scene which, all were agreed, was both believably and brutally drawn. Also realistic was the fact that she didn’t want to confess about this to her husband – by so doing it would have tainted her whole life. In contrast, by confiding in Mark she could safely isolate the traumatic event in much the same way that the affair itself was conducted somehow outside of normal reality.
We struggled to understand what exactly it was that led to the death of the rapist. Did Mark intend from the outset to kill him and, if so, was this his own objective or was it at her prompting? Some felt that this part of the story jarred with Mark’s previously presented control-freakery. If the death was planned, how did he ever think that he would get away with it and why was he prepared to go to such an extreme for her when she was evidently just 1 of many women in his life? Perhaps, we wondered, it was a sign that he really had spiralled out of control – fantasy and reality had become blurred in his mind to the extent that he truly believed that the crime could be compartmentalised like his liaisons and not impinge in any way on his other life/lives. It was a chance for him to play the tough guy, a role denied to him in real life and, like Yvonne in the crypt, he simply could not resist.
It was agreed that it was a really neat twist that, having selected his “victims” via CCTV, it was in the end also CCTV that led to his arrest and ultimate conviction. Echoes were seen of “We need to talk about Kevin” where similarly a central character committed to paper so much that they were unable to say as Yvonne spilt out her feelings about Mark and hid them on her PC.
We were divided on whether the ending was a little too drawn out and whether it would have been better to end the story after the court hearing. On balance though we decided that it was quite evocative to see the fallout of the affair and the trial – the fragile Yvonne not wanting to get better as then she’d need to start coping with the reality and the enormity of what she had done.
The book was awarded 7.5 out of 10 – a good read.
From the Daytime Group
Although it took me a while to take interest in this book, partly due to the way in which she narrates from the dock, I found myself gleaning through the pages, assuming it was going to be a long winded story about an affair. My view changed somewhat as the story took an unexpected twist, not suspecting that she would be violently raped. Something I found quite a disturbing read, however, the whole story took a turn and the reality of possible exposure of their affair and the impact it would have on her otherwise perfect family life. The read then became compelling; her lover, although we still didn’t know exactly what he did for a living, was portrayed from her narrative as a spy, someone with integrity and composure throughout. As the story unfolded and Yvonne decided to confide with her lover who then introduced someone who gave her legal advise, I was intrigued as to how she ended up in the dock and with what charge. As the book came to the latter stages and she asked him to intervene, waiting in the car for him whilst he went to the home of the man that assaulted her, you were led to believe that her lover was an accomplished hit-man, fitting of the characteristics of the spy she had created in her mind.
The ending of the book was quite clever in my opinion; he was not as he appeared or how she portrayed him, instead he pursued women by using the security cameras, not a suave character at all, but someone who pursued Yvonne and led her to believe he lived in a world of espionage, for example, the safe house, turned out to be a family members house.
The final twist and one I was really not expecting, was her final words to her lover at the end of the book seeking revenge, giving him the go ahead to take the matter into his own hands. At this moment, she became an accomplice to the murder, albeit, maybe not her intention.
I enjoyed the book, my only critique I would say I did not particularly enjoy the way in which she narrated the story from the dock. When the story began to unravel, I could understand that it gave an interesting read from her perspective, leading us to believe her version of events and withholding information until the end.
From the Colyford B Group
The whole group thought the book started well. Some thought it petered out quite early on but liked the twist at the end when it was revealed that Yvonne had said she wanted something done to the man that raped her … until then it had suggested that Yvonne was completely innocent and knew nothing at all of what was going on inside the house while she sat in a car outside.
Most of the group found the rape scene very uncomfortable to read and lost interest in the book afterwards, only carrying on reading to find out what happened to the characters and knowing we were meeting to discuss it!
A couple of people in our group found the trial boring, others said it was realistic as most of going to court is very slow and quite boring anyway!
None of us were able to relate to Yvonne Carmichael’s character but thought her friend Susannah must have been an exceedingly good friend to show up in court as often as she did, to support Yvonne.
Some of us were disappointed that the book turned out to be about assault and manipulation, especially as we didn’t get that from the ‘blurb’ when we were voting for what book we wanted to read.
Not one of our group would recommend this book as a good book to read. We all thought it was an easy book to read, but not a good one.
The scores given were: 7, 5, 3, 5 & 5 giving an average of 5 overall.
From the Exeter group
Most of us who’d read Apple Tree Yard thought it was a fairly gripping yarn, if somewhat implausible, though we later wondered whether that might be because we live in Devon and not in London. Who knows what our lives would be like if we too walked the corridors of the Houses of Parliament? Yvonne Carmichael seems an unlikely candidate for such a risqué affair. Is a dull husband and a predictable life really enough to make someone who is supposedly as clever as she is throw caution and common sense out of the window for passionate sex in an alleyway?
All in all we agreed it was no great work of literature or particularly memorable, but quite an enjoyable read. The court room scenes were judged to be the best bit of the book.
We didn’t take a vote on this book. If we had it might have averaged a 6/10.
June 2014: Longbourn by Jo Baker
From the Somerset Group
We all enjoyed the book with its detailed descriptions of the hard working lives of the servants set against the backdrop of the privileged lives of the Bennet family.
The comings and goings of servant life and the sheer drudgery of day to day work are all beautifully observed by Jo Baker.
Some of us thought James’ character the most interesting, especially with the change of mood of a much darker tale of his life in the army in Spain. We thought another book could have been written about this!
Not very believable that Sarah would have found James, trudging all that way up through the lake district but never mind, it all made for a happy ending, complete with new baby to show poor Mrs Hill on their return to Longbourn.
From the Axminster Group
Because most of us would consider Pride & Prejudice to be up there amongst our all time favourites, as a sequel, we found it disappointing. Many agreed that ‘our’ Mr Bennett would not have fathered an illegitimate baby and most of us felt that where Jo Baker was going with the story was pretty obvious from about half way in. However as a stand alone read, it was enjoyable and those who had read it, found the historical aspect particularly interesting, the conditions and how they did wash the petticoats and make the soap etc. So, overall it got an “ok”.
From the Exeter Group
We were all rather underwhelmed by this book, variously describing it as “pleasant”, “an easy read”, “a bit lukewarm” and “innocuous”. The plot was felt to be at least not completely implausible, and most people thought the book improved as it went along. Most of us thought James’ overseas story was the most interesting part of the story, so felt let down by his abrupt and inadequately explained return to England. But even that left us slightly muddled – was he in Spain or Portugal?! There was general agreement that the book made more sense for those of us who had read Pride and Prejudice, with a couple of people commenting that Jane Austin’s writing is wittier than Jo Baker’s. Some of us found Longbourn rather plodding, demanding the ploughing-through of altogether too many pages of housework. Life as a housemaid in those days was undoubtedly arduous, boring and at times (especially when viewed through our modern eyes) a bit disgusting; if only Jo Baker had devoted fewer pages to pressing home that point, and more pages to weaving an interesting story.
We awarded Longbourn 5 out of 10.
May 2014: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman
From the Somerset Group
~ Really enjoyed by some (one person loved it!) but three of us were less enthusiastic.
~ The detailed descriptions of Tom’s daily tasks as a lighthouse keeper were interesting.
~ Isabel’s increasingly desperate situation and the misery of Tom’s dilemma created good momentum.
~ The corrosive nature of keeping guilty secrets and the effect they had on Tom and Isabel’s initially happy marriage came across well.
~ Tom was thought annoyingly weak to a couple of us although he clearly deserved a lot of sympathy.
~ Although at times very sad, not everyone was left reaching for the tissues.
~ An easy enough read but some felt there were too many rather obvious signposts and the ending was too predictable.
From the Honiton/Ottery Group
The group found the book quite a page-turner and an enjoyable read. However there were a few things that we disliked about it; the believability factor, the clichéd language in the first few chapters, and the lack of a proper resolution at the end all made the book feel as if it had been written in a hurry!
We all felt engaged by the book but did not all empathise with the characters. It certainly made you wonder what you would do in a similar situation and also required you to get rid of your 21st century mindset and try and think as they would have done back then. With echoes of Madeleine McCann it challenged the reader to sympathise with the kidnappers. With much currently being discussed about the First World War and survivor’s guilt one really had to feel sympathy for the husband but the wife came across as a bit of a spoilt brat!
The factor of being on an island was like Lord of the Flies in that the normal rules of society perhaps do not apply and we all enjoyed the descriptions of Janus.
Overall we would like to give the book:
Story/style : 8/10
Characters : 6/10
Engagement : 9/10
From the Daytime Group
~ The book was a great portrait of a tragic situation.
~ It led to a lot of discussion about right and wrong and how the boundaries can become blurred.
~ It gave an awareness of a different age with different support systems.
~ Score: 8/10
From the Exeter Group
Light Between Oceans divided us again, which always makes for a good discussion.
There was some scathing critical review from one member who found the whole book far too predictable and staged. There was a feeling that the plot had been engineered and manipulated with transparency rather than flowing and forming unexpected twists and surprises.
However this view was not universal and while others agreed that this was no literary masterpiece, it was felt on one level to be a delightful story of love and loss.
Divisions also existed on what we would have done in the same situation!!
Overall 4/10 (individual scores ranging from 0 to 7!)
From the Colyford Group
The majority of the group thought the book was very easy to read and that it kept the readers interest from the start, so much so, that those that had read it before didn’t skim through it, but read it fully for a second time and still enjoyed it. The main characters were described in great detail and both Tom and Isabel seemed like good people. The book was cleverly written in that it made you feel for all of the characters and made you want a ‘happy outcome’ for them all.
We felt we could paint a picture of the island from the description given in the book and also that we had a good idea of what living on an island like that could be like. It raised the question in the group as to whether it would be fair to live on an island like that with a child? Janus means ‘look both ways’ but was not found to be a real place.
It was interesting to learn about the rules and regulations of lighthouse keeping, something that most of us had never given any thought to previously.
Many parts of the book were sad, even harrowing, thought provoking and painful to read, especially when Lucy Grace did not accept her mother when she was returned to her. Most of the group found that hard to read, probably because we’re all mothers …
We discussed how Isabel’s personality may have changed because of everything she had gone through, without the support of anyone but Tom. Post natal depression would not have been recognised then anyway, but Isabel would have had more support if she’d have been on the mainland, closer to her parents.
It was felt that because Tom’s mother had been taken away from him when he was very young, he could empathise with Hannah. Perhaps that made him write the notes to her or perhaps it was because he had met her previously?
Small details in the book such as when Lucy’s hair had worn thin by her rubbing her head on her pillow, brought back memories for lots of us, from when our own children were small.
Some of the group thought that the book lost pace a little once Tom had been arrested and that the ending was too quick in that there were only 15 pages of conclusion.
Out of the 12 people in our group discussing The Light Between Oceans, 11 would recommend it to someone else and it was given an overall score of 8.5 out of 10 with comments like: ‘light easy read, good but not great, ending rushed, can’t wait for the film to be released, too long, lost impact, thoroughly enjoyed, loved the observations’ and ‘it reminded me that reading was a pleasure.’
March 2014: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
From the Colyford Group
The general feedback on this book was that it is an easy read with the story ‘galloping’ along although some of the characters are rather odd.
There is a good deal of sympathy for Tony and dislike of Veronica. Tony’s letter made some of us laugh until the outcome was realised.
For the chapters centred on Tony’s school days, there were comparisons made with ‘The History Boys’.
Some had read the book before and enjoyed it more after the second reading but for many of us the ending didn’t really tie up the loose ends of the story.
When Tony started hounding Veronica about the diary…was this due to guilt? Tony was left £500 by Veronica’s mother…..why?
Was the dysfunctional relationship between Veronica and her mother due to the competitiveness between them?
What was the significance of the horizontal hand ‘wave’ which was mentioned earlier in the book and alluded to again at the end? Maybe we were looking for hidden meanings that didn’t exist!
In summary, everyone that read it enjoyed the first half more than the remainder of the story and the unanswered questions certainly generated a lot of debate.
Score: Seven of the meeting attendees had read the book and the average score was 6
From the Exeter Group
We universally enjoyed this book. The central theme of memory was debated at length. We related to the idea of how past events are recollected differently by individuals who experienced the same event. We discussed if hidden memories can really be triggered and reveal what was long buried in one’s mind? Memory is a version of history and early on in the book we are prompted to examine the definition of history with the various versions given by the precociously intelligent boys at Tony’s school.
Tony was felt to be a rather sad, naive and passive character. His relationship with Veronica being a central theme of the book. There was speculation as to whether Tony’s recollections were consciously withheld or whether he had genuinely remembered them in his own way. It was generally felt that Veronica treated Tony with disdain and liked the control she initially had over Tony. The weekend visit to Veronica’s parents also caused some divided opinions as to whether Veronic’s mother was flirting with Tony or not? Was it possible she had slept with Tony as well as Adrian?? Some of us felt she was a victim in a household where she seemed to be a second class citizen while others felt she may have been more predatory?
There was a sense that the truth was hard to grasp as we were not given enough depth into many of the characters eg Adrian. How did he end up with Veronica’s mother as a bedfellow and fathering a son? We certainly felt it was not Tony’s responsibility despite his vitriolic letter. Maybe this is the impression Julian Barnes wishes to leave with us, ie our own memory can be vivid and detailed but do we really know what others are thinking?
From the Honiton/Ottery Group
~ Hearing about the friends time at Boarding school made some of us feel glad we hadn’t gone to one
~ We were pleased Tony had stayed friends with his wife
~ Felt the story didn’t really have any strong tie with the four friends after the beginning, so why was there so much about them to begin with?
~ Tony’s character wasn’t explored in depth enough for us nor that of Veronica’s mother. Had she had other affairs….did she and Veronica have any trust/relationship issues?
~ If you were looking for an ending, there were many throughout the whole story
~ It was an easy if not dull and unfulfilling read
~ Some felt unsure what to think of it all together
~ Wouldn’t recommend it to others
~ Rated it it a 4/10 mainly for it being an easy read
From the Daytime Group
~ Unless this was a book group book, none of us would have read past the first page. However, it did pick up after that.
~ We wouldn’t recommend this book but a second reading may change our minds about this.
~ It was a shame that the crux of the plot (Adrian’s affair with Veronica’s mother) wasn’t something that Tony could have remembered.
~ Our rating: 4/10
March 2014: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
From the Colyford Group
Only a few of us at the meeting had managed to read this book (1 person had read / 3 part read).
There is a suggestion that it is partly autobiographical reflecting the authors own acrimonious relationships, bigamy and mental breakdown. Was the author was trying to create a book around his own life experiences and was he perhaps attempting to put some of the ghosts to rest?
We were unsure whether the story should be read as a black comedy / farce but it was simply written in that there were few surprises as everything seemed to be set out at the beginning. The first few chapters in particular seem to be written without any emotion and where almost like a diary of events with lots of varied threads all going off in different directions. The ‘romance’ and ‘excitement’ of a holiday in Europe didn’t come across at all.
We wondered whether, taking into account when the book was written, Ford Maddox Ford was intending to shock for the sake of it and generate discussion?
Overall, I think that the following feedback sums up the groups general thoughts:
‘In a nut shell I felt like banging the characters’ heads together. I think an honest 40 hour working week would have sorted the lot of them out; sitting idly all day with nothing to think about and do, other than count their money, developed unsociable traits and mixed up views on right from wrong! Definitely a case for “Relate” and group therapy for the lot of them!’
Footnote: Overall, I think everyone agreed that having two books was quite a challenge and a bit of a chore with the majority only managing to finish one of them.
From Jonnie in the Exeter Group
No interpretation needed here as to who is whose bedfellow, rather a case of spot the chaste among the fornicating upper classes!
I was advised by a member of another branch of the Colyton Book Group that this book was like wading through treacle which was my initial thought. However like treacle if you stir it hard enough it does become less viscous. Even so we only had two members who had managed to finish the book by the time we met. I have since finished it, with relief.
Score 2 (range 0-6)
From the Honiton/Ottery Group
~ Far too descriptive
~ The story’s rambling nature made it difficult to get into
~ Ford Madox Ford has a very strange style of writing which some of us found off putting and so just couldn’t get into the book or finish reading it. It also reminded one of us of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, which they still haven’t finished!
~ The ‘heart’ problems, was it love or control?
~ Is Florence controlling because it empowers her and allows her to ‘keep her place’ in society?
~ Wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else
~ Rated it 2/10
From the Daytime Group
~ It was a good portrayal of a particular social group at that time.
~ We noted that it seemed acceptable for a married man to have affairs but not a woman.
~ We were puzzled as to why this book was as high as 30th on a list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.
~ Our rating: 3/10 but opinions varied up to 6/10
February 2014: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
From Pippa in the Exeter Group
Reactions to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close were quite mixed. Though some read the book as a believable “journey through bereavement” with all of its stages of anger, search, depression and acceptance credibly portrayed by example of the nine-year old Oscar Schell, others felt it was a book “entirely devoid of hope”. None of the characters that have gone through terrible experiences seem to be able to come to terms with them or experience a catharsis (the grandfather, the grandmother, Oscar’s mother). Oscar perhaps comes closest, but the book ends on an “if only” note that doesn’t leave readers with any clear message with regard to tragedy. As one of our group members put it, perhaps all the author has to say is that “sometimes awful things happen and when they do you will never get over them”.
We also found it difficult to like and believe in the characters. Oscar is too precocious, OCD, endowed with endless quirky characteristics (tambourine-playing, collecting of butterflies that died a natural death, jewellery-making etc etc) to be very likeable. He is also at times oddly mature for a nine-year old. Would he really have wanted to kiss an adult woman like Abby Black and not just have a hug for comfort? It is as if the author is trying for a Holden Caulfield characters with memorable, distinguishing features that are meant to be endearing, but doesn’t pull it off. The female characters seem like cardboard cutouts. Do we ever even get to know the name of the grandmother? Oscar’s mother doesn’t really come to life.
We also struggled to understand why some of the characters acted in the way they did. Why did the grandmother want to marry Thomas Schell senior? Some of us thought it was because he was her only connection to her previous life and she wanted what her elder sister had. Others in our group didn’t think this was reason enough, that she always knew she would only ever be second-best to him. Why did Oscar’s mother allow him to wander New York on his own? Admittedly, she is aware of his search and phones ahead to warn the people he will visit. Perhaps she even put the old neighbour up to accompanying him, but she seems oddly detached, leaving him at home alone on a day when he is supposedly ill and is having to cope with the loss of his father. Thomas Schell senior’s loss is represented by his loss of language, his wife’s loss through her loss of sight, but again this doesn’t seem quite real.
There were nonetheless many aspects of the book we liked; humorous moments (Oscar’s word association session with his analyst), genuinely touching simple writing and the author’s original approach to fiction (interspersing the story with images, condenses/spaced-out typeface etc). On balance, though, we felt he tried too hard. Why does he feel the need to overlay the already tragic story of a boy losing his father in the Twin Tower attack with the Dresden Firebombing? The pathos is at times unbearable and the book overladen with symbolism (the surname Schell as a homophone for shell = emptiness/husk, Oscar all in white searching for Black, the key that will unlock everything, etc. etc.) Some of the stylistic novelties were also felt to be simply irritating. Did anyone bother to decipher the two and a half pages of mobile phone number code on pp. 269 – 271 or analyse all the errors on pp. 208-216? None of us did. We didn’t think there was much point. What else would we have learnt?
We took a vote at the end of our discussion and gave the book 24 out of a total 50. It’s not perhaps a book we would recommend, but it was a good bookclub choice, as it lead to a very animated, interesting discussion.”
From the Honiton/Ottery Group
~ In general, liked the use of images
~ Thought the Tom Sr’s letters had powerful content and good use of punctuation
~ We sympathised with Tom Sr
~ Amusing at times
~ Found the writing style made the book easy to read
~ Enjoyed the fact that there was a perfect ending to the plot
~ Found the book moving in parts but there were several sections that I skim read as I felt that they went on a bit. I liked the impact of the pages that had just a few words on them.
~ Would like to see the film of the book now to see how it would make an impact with the references to Dresden and Hiroshima although this may detract from the core story which has reduced cinematic impact
~ A bit rambling at times
~ No resolve to the penultimate chapter
~ The Tom Sr/Tom Jr relationship impact wasn’t explored enough
~ Psychologically needed to separate with the ‘something place’
~ Sometimes Oskar did things that were infeasible for a child of his age that made the book a bit surreal in places and Oskar was obviously intended to be a character who didn’t conform to the perception of how a 9 year old child would interact with his friends but this allowed the author to be more creative.
~ Sad about the lack of emotional support for each other
~ The trauma of the Dresden raids were so ingrained and Tom Sr a prisoner of his own traumas, so impossible to judge his deeds unless you have been through the same ordeals yourself
~ Felt it had a similarity to Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night
~ The typewriter section was heartbreaking
In the main, the club enjoyed the book and we would recommend it to others.
We scored it 8/10
From the Colyford Group
This book was definitely “Marmite”; opinions were divided with very few taking the middle ground; some didn’t finish it and had no intention of doing so whilst others were going to keep it and will definitely read again.
For some the book brought back memories of where they were and what they were doing on 9/11 and how they were moved at the time and found it interesting to see the incident from a child’s perspective and without the political undercurrent reflected in adults’ accounts seen in documentaries and newspapers. Some said they felt slightly voyeuristic being drawn in through the book to such personal loss and grief and while the majority agreed they would not have chosen to read a novel based on 9/11 they said it was an historic global event and was right to have it included in literature.
Most empathised with the main character, Oskar, but some said the grandmother’s and grandfather’s narrative made the book fragmented and difficult to follow, however others felt their stories linked well with the theme of loss through the generations and how their lives had been altered by tragedy and how they had struggled to come to terms with their loss. A few members said they felt it was like reading two separate books and were not convinced the accounts of Dresden and the events of 9/11 worked together as one novel and that the author had been over-ambitious, a couple of members said they would have preferred it had just focused on 9/11. However, those who had not finished the book became aware they had missed the benefit of knowing how the different seemingly unconnected strands throughout the book came together and were resolved at the end.
Those who enjoyed the book suggested that it should be read quickly and not to try to figure out too much along the way and trust the author to bring it all together, a couple of members who it enjoyed added that they could not put it down and enjoyed the fast pace of the writing and likened it to that of a racing child’s mind. Some enjoyed the crazy inventions and quirky facts revealed through Oskars continually racing thoughts, such as there not being enough skulls for everyone in the world to play Hamlet. There was disappointment among some that the book did not have a happy, or a more optimistic, ending and they were expecting a more exciting result to the search for the owner of the key, but others were quite satisfied with the denouement and that Oskar was finally able to stop searching and accept the death of his father.
The credibility of Oskar being able to wander around the neighbourhood alone was raised and questioned how a mother of a 9 year old could not be aware of this; for those who had finished the book some found her a more compassionate character when they realised she was aware of his actions and was in fact allowing Oskar the space and time to come to terms with his grief and the unanswerable questions surrounding the loss of a loved one. It was also suggested that perhaps Oskar was known to those in the borough as they had been shop-owners and thus making it more credible that a young boy could wander around on his own. Another question raised was as to whether Stephen Hawkins had agreed to be included in the book, especially that the letters to Oskar were “signed” by him.
The book had been compared by some critics to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” and the group discussed the issue of whether or not Oskar had Asperger’s Syndrome; most agreed this was quite likely as both his grandfather and father showed traits of this – the grandfather not talking after the death of Anna and his father circling grammatical errors in the daily newspaper.
The layout of the book was original; some found this distracting and felt it added nothing to the reading experience, but others enjoyed the visual impact of the book, but those who read it on Kindle said the changing sizes, colours and styles of font, the different page layout and the pictures did not translate well onto the Kindle and were surprised to see the hard copy and would definitely not recommend reading it on the Kindle.
The group assessed the book, there was a balanced number of very low and very high scores with it coming out with an overall score of 6 out of 10.