Insole Court Book Club – July

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

This months book club book was picked through a conversation around one of our previous books (for the life of me, I can’t remember which book led us to this one but it has been a while!). I had heard very polarised viewpoints about Rooney’s writing so I was interested to see what people thought! 

Thoughts below. And please get involved in the discussion using the comments box.

Easier to read than others we have read recently. Holiday read.

Quite stylised, took a while to get used to. Author born in 1991. Conscious of that.

Quite realistic which makes it hard at times.I hate you and all your friends.

Pretentious characters. Deliberate choice by author.Possibility that we were like that too at 21.

Normal People quite similar. Could be same characters.

Frances doesn’t feel anything. Everything’s ironic. Trendy.

References (bands and books) used to place it at a time and place. Cool points!

‘Landscape paintings are patriarchal’.

Interesting that Frances downloads and goes back through her texts. 

Nick made to sound so old, despite only being in early 30’s. A very early 20’s perspective.

Privilege of many of the characters and how it rubs off on Frances. Doesn’t want to work, like the others.

We read that it was written in 3 months and discussed whether you can tell. Did she start writing it, not know where it was going to go? Imitating life?

Frances is emotionally dull. Is this to allow you to put your own emotions on her?

Relationship with Dad, emotionally shut down to cope with. What does she then look for from Nick? Attention, which comes in scraps. All a big game.

Discussion around a point made in this article comparing Rooney’s Capitalism to Joyce’s Catholicism.

Is setting in in Ireland critical? Some thought so. Biggest boom and bust. Impacted on people like Frances and her family.

She’s distrustful, but also in awe of glamorous lifestyles. Discussed who had more power. Beginning= Bobbi, end = Frances. A toxic relationship but quite realistic.

A shared history that you can’t separate from. 

Is it a coming of age story? We didn’t think so as no one grows.

Talked about Nick as a character. Why doesn’t she mention which character he plays in Hamlet? It would have given us an idea of his career.

A very passive character. If this book were written 30 years ago, the story would have centred on him. 

Would the story have been different if Nick had been a woman? A different sort of power struggle/jealousy.

Melissa’s email to Frances was devastating. Why was she so interested in Bobbi and Frances?

Frances is not reliable as a person, let alone as a narrator. Very hypocritical. 

‘You can’t be unemotional. It’s like saying you don’t have thoughts’.

Frances writes with more nuance that she portrays in person. Is it a generational thing? Do that age group communicate better through technology?

Overated perhaps, but we liked it. Would recommend to some people. Works as a holiday read.

Liked Mum and Bobbi. We’d hang out with her. 

Lack of quotation marks blurs lines between whats real and whats not. He said, she said. We know that Rooney debated at Uni and it shows. Not a realistic form of dialogue, one step removed from the conversation.

Brief discussion about women written by men, and men written by women. Our cultural conditioning. 

No recommendations this month but all reading lots of interesting books. Anyone want to share there current reads below?

Next months book club meeting is on Tuesday 27th August where we’ll be discussing Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

Review-ish: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

‘I think it possible to put flesh on the bones of our terrors, most of all when we have turned our back on God.’

Cheers to Dai Brows for this recommendation. It’s definitely not something that I would have normally picked up as I shy away from period novels, but the recommendation was strong and Essex is the Mother and Fatherland so thought I’d give it a go. The cover is gorgeous actually, a William Morris design. I love it and it shows the reader that it’s much more than a piece of Victoriana.

It’s just a bit of a delight really. It has enough depth through the deeply complex and fascinating characters to make it truly gripping, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The narrative is so unusual, exploring Victorian thoughts on science, medicine, social housing, wrapped around a legendary serpent and this compelling and sometimes a bit frustrating (in a good way) central character.

Perry only hints at Cora’s past married life, which makes it all the more powerful. She creates a central character that is sometimes irritatingly niaive and at other times very self-aware. Cora herself recognises the contradiction of knowing that the marriage shaped her into the woman she is now.

Cora is a maverick and really challenges those around her’s perceptions of womanhood. I loved and loathed that everyone felt owed something by her; love, politeness, friendship, a typical family-life. This provides another layer of tension throughout the book and allows us to examine Victorian-life for women, through her experiences and the way that it contrasts to the other female characters.

Every character in the book, even the more minor ones, have the same level of detail, quirks and individuality. As I write this, I remember more and more of the characters; Naomi, Cracknell, Maureen Fry, Charles Ambrose and Thomas Taylor. A specific interaction between Cracknell and Cora’s son Francis stands out to me as peaceful, beautiful and faintly comical due to Francis’ matter-of-factness.

Perry uses foreshadowing in an impactful way without slapping you round the face with it. And her little updates or summaries at the start of many of the chapters were really poetically written and a simple and effective device.

This is a really great and pacey read. If you’re looking for something a bit different I highly recommend getting your teeth into it.

Whats everyone planning on reading over the Summer then?

Kelly



Review-ish: Circe by Madeline Miller

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.” 

< There are so, so many beautiful passages in this book that I could have used, have a look here for some examples> Strap yourselves in, this is going to be one of those gushingly positive posts, where I offer very little literary criticism.

I have been eyeing up Circe in book shops ever since it was published in 2018, but a 5 hour wait at Edinburgh airport broke my resolve to get through my to-buy list in order. Circe is Madeline Millers second novel, following her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction back in 2012.

This book is so stunningly written that it will make me incoherent. Not only is the narrative fascinating, tracing Circe’s journey from childhood to adulthood (can a demi-god be a child??) intersecting with characters from well-known Greek myths, but it is also stunningly poetic.

“But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.” 

Case in point. Oh how its flows.

The way that Miller introduces these ancient stories is really remarkable. And surprisingly modern-feeling. The mythical characters were bought to life in a way that they never really had been for me before (save for a GCSE Drama class exploring Orpheus and Disney’s Hercules) All were 3D and complicated, and the Gods in particular were nuanced whilst, I believe, staying true to their origin stories.

I fell in love with Circe’s internal transformation, her strength and her flaws, in the way I would with a dear friend. She is complex, burdened with struggling to find her place in the world. No wonder so many of us related to her so deeply (it has a 4.3 rating on Goodreads at time of writing). This is without a doubt, one of my top reads of 2019 so far.

Thanks to some further-reading recommendations from Offbeat Book Club pals, I have become obsessed with these feminist re-tellings of stories that we have heard our entire lives. So further Reviews to follow. And please keep up your recommendations. Already on the list or already read: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Obviously I will also HAVE to read A Song for Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Anyone else fallen in love with this? And dare I ask, did anyone hate it?

Kelly

Review-ish: The Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (#2 in the Farseer Trilogy)

‘Wolves have no kings’.

I appreciate that I wasn’t blown away by the first installment to Hobb’s Farseer Triology, as you can read here, but something drew me back in. Lad-at-home continued to wax-lyrical about this series, and I didn’t dislike the first book, I just found it a little bit slow. I’m aware that I have the concentration-span of a springer spaniel and it had been a while since I’d read a fantasy books so thought I’d have a go at Book Number Two, The Royal Assassin.

This installment certainly isn’t slow. It picks up after a cliffhanger, with Fitz a shell of his former youthful self, and rushes straight back into the action. The characters that are introduced in the first book develop further, all with very interesting and often unexpected arcs. The Fool in particular begins to reveal more of his true self, whilst also totally baffling me. Which I loved. We follow Fitz into his near-adulthood, whilst he stumbling-ly finds his place within this world of treachery, intrigue and class war-fare.

The concept of the Forged Ones is brilliantly clever; we are made to fear them, but also pity them. And it allows us to explore the complex range of emotions that the families and communities must go through. It also allows us to see a new side to Fitz, as his skills develop.  I won’t say anymore about the Wit and the Skill as I don’t want to spoil it for any other readers but the ‘magic’ elements if this series as fantastic. I love that these skills have to be developed through hard work and connection to others, rather than just ‘boof’ magic-done-type magic of Tolkein ilk. Its why I love Ursula La Guin so much. Brilliant. 

Like a few reviewers on Goodreads, I feel fairly meh over Fitz’s relationship with Molly. I understand it as a plot device but care less about his romantic relationships that his much more interesting relationships with the royals, Burrich and Patience. There was a lot less of Chade is this book, which I hope that is meant to create more mystery around him, and hopefully he’ll play more of a role in the concluding book. 

This was a much more compelling read than Book #1. And I really hope that readers that find the first installment a bit slow aren’t put off trying the next one as it really is worth sticking with. I believe that I have read enough fantasy series over the years to confidently say that Hobb’s voice is wonderful and that the world that she has created is all-encompassing. Even if I haven’t read enough, sod it. This is my blog so I can say what I like!

Anyone ever had a similar experience with a series before? Is second-book-syndrome really a thing? Chat ahead in the comments.

Kelly

Review-ish: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

‘Mademoiselle, I speak as a friend. Bury your dead! … Give up the past! Turn to the future! What is done is done. Bitterness will not undo it.’

I am mightily ashamed to say that this is my very first Agatha Christie novel. I couldn’t begin to give you a reason for it, I like a good murder mystery Agatha and I share a birth-place, so I have been surrounded by her presence my entire life. Big thanks to Amy G for encouraging me to have a go and for kindly lending me this copy from her precious (and impressive) collection.

Accepting that you have to look past language that wouldn’t be appropriate if it was written today, Death on the Nile is a good ol’ romp. I loved it. It is a comfortable read. The characters are mainly ghastly (thank you Agatha, for making me want to talk like a 1920’s It girl) but are very fun in their despicable-ness. I enjoy the clashes between the different classes (which are pretty polarising) and the way that Poirot breezes past them all to wrap it all up beautifully.

This book forced me to avoid skim-reading, although not entirely. I still had to go back and re-read bits, and also read an online synopsis to write this review as I read this a while back now and have read another Poirot novel since!

With 66 novels and 14 short stories under her belt and well as two characters that are house-hold names, Poirot and Mrs Marple, Christie truly is the Mother of Murder Mystery. Her impact on story-telling, and more specifically on female writers cannot be denied. I’m aware that the majority of readers of this blog will be more than familiar with these works and I’m stating the very obvious, but just on the smallest of off-chances that someone out there hasn’t read any before, then I highly recommend dipping into a Poirot. And Death on the Nile is an excellent place to start. Bon voyage!

Insole Court Book Club – May

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel

This months book club read was chosen by one of our dear members. I was really interested in the choice as I had heard so much about Hilary Mantel and knew that Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies were mega popular (but a bit big for a one-month turnaround for book club, so grateful for that they weren’t recommended!)

I managed to get myself one of the original prints by Penguin which I enjoyed for its vintage look and small size. Insole Court managed to get in a lovely looking version for the shop, and we spent a good few minutes at the start of the meeting having a chuckle about one print that exists which has the most irrelevant stock-photo image on the front that I have ever seen.

Eight Months was first published in 1986, pre-Wolf Hall, and is a reflection of the few years that Mantel spent living in Saudi Arabia. I mention this to give some context to some later comments! As always, feel free to comment below, and get involved.

Struggled to get through it. Surprised by the quote on the book ‘horrifyingly gripping’.

Took a while to get going.

Mantel comes across as racist, not just the characters. Uncomfortable.

Expected a big revelation about how similar we all are really, but no.

Maybe more of a lack of understanding. ‘Back to the real world’ Western is right.

Too easy to say that she was expressing common viewpoints from that era, maybe it would be address more directly if it was written now?

Not sure what happened at the end? Felt a little bit rushed. Preconceptions proven right?

What happened on the balcony??!! Was it all just her paranoia?

What happens in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for a reviewer to make this comparison? (None of us had read it!)

Some of us enjoyed the descriptions of the apartment block and the surrounding area and felt she built tension well, particularly the description of the tiles watching. Others could have done without it.

Directionless – is it a psycho thriller or a murder mystery?

One member decided to google real-life stories from Saudi to compare.

‘I’m not a racist, I’m a xenophobe’. Double standards. She doesn’t like anyone.

Chasing the money – criticism of expat lifestyle. Giving up the little things in life for the paycheck. Going for one year, staying for longer.

Francis formed her opinion of Saudi on the plane. Not that well-informed.

Irony of someone getting lost with a map she’d created as a cartographer. Only real time that her career is really mentioned.

We all thought that the Fairfax bit got interesting. Felt like things were going to start connecting.

We discussed the similarities to Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies to compare. Style is similar, lots of attention to detail. Measured. But had a much stronger plot. Is it because she was following the historical events?

It reminded one member of the film, Lost in Translation.

Lack of distinction in any of the other characters. Struggled to distinguish one expat man from another, and the same with the expat women and Saudi couples. Very 2D.

What about the burglary? Was it just to highlight how important home-made wine was to them?

No point to the different formats, eg diary, letter.

Some found it interesting to read about Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s. Some were able to compare it to what they had heard about people living ‘compound life’ in South Africa.

Blurb made it sound good. But one member found it quite miserable and depressing.

We thought that her isolation and how insular she became was interesting. The atmosphere that was created. Quite a poetic style at times.

‘Travel narrowing the mind’. Francis is testament to it. Self-aware. Quite witty in some ways.

Different editing might have improved it.

The memo at the start, we assumed was pre-action. If there had been names mentioned or more obvious hints, we would have paid more attention to it.

Unreliable narrator?

  • Hilary Mantel on the Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 4
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • Wolf Hall & Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

So there you go. Not an overwhelmingly positive response to Eight Months on Ghazzah Street but a lot to talk about! Next months book club meeting (Tuesday 25th June) will be hosted by Natasha Wilson as I am off to a wedding! She’ll be chairing the discussion on Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox which is available now in the Insole Court Visitors Centre or widely available online.

I’m off to Hay Festival tomorrow for the first time so no doubt I’ll post some over-excited photos on Instagram @offbeatbookclub. I’m trying to limit myself to two new books but we’ll see. That’s probably not realistic…

Enjoy your weekend!

Kelly

Review-ish: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

I can’t find a quote for this book so that might suggest how little I enjoyed it. Plus the fact that it has taken me WEEKS to get around to writing it up. I just couldn’t think of enough to say about it.

I guess what made me pick it up was the name of the author, as I was looking for more of a variety of voices to read. And I have since realised that I have read one of her books before, The Forty Rules of Love, which was a book club read from many a moon ago. The Forty Rules focused on Rumi the poet and although I found that slightly interesting, the writing left me cold then. And this was more of the same.

Although the subject matter was different, and on paper, it should be right up my street (feminism, friendship, travel) I just found it very dull and a bit of a slog. The characters weren’t just unlikeable (I can get around that if they are written well) but they were caricatures; there was the timid one, the sexy one and the righteous one. Maybe I liked Peri’s Dad? But I genuinely can’t remember.

Shahaf must be doing something right as Goodreads shows huge numbers of 5 star reviews, and I am very respectful of her ability to write in both Turkish and English, but I don’t think I’ll be actively seeking out any more of her books, they’re just not for me. And that’s fine!

So I’ll keep it short and slightly-less-than-sweet on this glorious Bank Holiday Monday and focus on catching up with the rest of my reviews!

Have a good one!

Kelly