Insole Court Book Club Notes – March

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Way, way back, one week into the UK lockdown, almost 3 decades ago now, Insole Court Book Club attempted its first digital meeting. In advance, we agreed to have a crack at using Zoom for our discussion, and met at our normal time, but in our own houses, rather than the beautiful Reading Room at Insole Court.

One of our lovely regular attendees recommended Cutting For Stone, as she had previously read it and thought it would be a good book club pick. And I think it was a great suggestion, as we were definitely divided over it and had a good old chat about it. A couple of us loved it, a couple struggled/didn’t love it, and one or two weren’t able to finish it. It’s a big read, and we chatted about how this particularly time in history isn’t always conducive to getting stuck into anything too big.

Initially, we chatted about the pacing of the book, and how for some of us, it got harder to read the further along it went. We also discussed how some of the coincidences that occur during the book could make the reader feel a bit emotionally manipulated.

Interestingly, nearly all of us enjoyed reading about the setting, the hospital and Ethiopia, and most of us found most of the characters unlikeable. My caveat to that is that I loved Hema. I mentioned that I thought that Verghese was inspired by John Irving, and in this, I could see similarities to the way that the narrator is a fairly dull character, but is surrounded by very colourful characters, that drive the narrative. Many of us thought that there were other stories to tell, from the other characters perspectives.

Prompted by a question online, we discussed how the book represents the emotional lives of Drs. Some book clubbers felt that it was an accurate reflection of the emotional detachment that Drs have to develop to do their jobs. It’s a matter of survival. We also chatted about how single-faceted Marions life becomes, and whether this was informed by his childhood that was all-consumed by hospital life.

We talked at length about how Verghese doesn’t give a particularly clear answer the the big mystery that threads through the novel, that of the twins conception. And in turn, we talked about whether someones childhood/life experiences can excuse later betrayals. This led to whether we felt that Marion had been able to forgive some of the characters by the end of the book. We felt that it wasn’t necessarily given voice to but was implied. Some of enjoyed Marions rather teenage-angsty actions when he broke into Stone’s apartment.

According to Verghese, he wanted to ‘tell a great story, an old-fashioned truth telling story’. One of the suggested book club questions asked what human truths does the story tell. We felt that the story was centred around family, and that family doesn’t have to be blood-relations, and can be chosen.

Overall, the book covered a wide range of topics, and we found them to be interesting, particularly the medical aspects. The difficulty for some came in the pacing and size of the book. Some parts of the book were completely forgotten by us, like the section about Stones childhood, which is pretty long. And we were in agreement that parts of it were beautifully written. As I have said before, I often think its as much about ‘when’ you read a book, as to what its about. And the uncertainty of a looming global pandemic is not always the best time to take on a mammoth book.

Further reading :

  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese
  • The Cider House Rules by John Irving
  • The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

As a group, we were also reading:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Please comment below if you’ve read Cutting for Stone and want to have a chat about it! Or if you have any recommended further reading, we’re always up for recommendations.

In April, we met to discuss The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, notes coming soon!

Kelly

Review-ish: Women & Power by Mary Beard

‘It is not just that it is much more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if they ever mess up’

This pint-sized beauty was brought for me as a very well-considered gift. I’m a little obsessed with Mary Beard. She’s recently been named as a Trustee of the British Museum, to some controversy it seems, and currently has a tv programme on BBC called Mary Beards Shock of the Nude.

This is another slim, little one-sitting read. You can tell my attention span wasn’t great at this time, even pre-Covid19 lockdown.

These quick reads (The Myths series) and published interviews (I also read Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky recently) are enlightening and ideal for quarantine reading. Although maybe not Noam. He was pretty heavy.

In Women & Power, Beard explores the silencing of women through the ages, using her expert knowledge to bring stories and historical moments to life and make them relevant for today. She also addresses the Me Too movement from her own perspective.

Having been through the British schooling system, my historical knowledge includes such highlights as; Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died…) WWII (from Britains perspective obvs) and a dappling of Ancient Egyptians, so this really helped remind me of why history is worth further exploration in adult-hood, and that there are many lessons to be learnt.

Others have written much more eloquently than me about the intricacies of the book, so I will link to a great Guardian by Jacqueline Rose here.

I know I don’t offer much in the way of in-depth analysis (hence Review-ish) so I will always try to share interesting observations by others. I have a back-log of posts to do, due to lockdown, and am finding that I’m not always focused enough to get them done, so I’ll keep them short and snappy for now. And hope that this gals opinions are useful to you!

Women & Power wonderfully blends feminism with my current interest of Greek myths so it was always going to be a winner for me. But I would recommend it, especially if you’re looking for some non-fiction distraction, but like me, find anything too bulky a bit daunting. It’s certainly an easier read that Optimism Over Despair.

Kelly

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

I stumbled across this book quite by accident. I was training for my first marathon and I prefer not to think about running when I’m running, as I just stop. Audiobooks are my life saver. I’d already made my way through the Lord of the Rings and I was after another epic to keep me motivated. So, I turned to BorrowBox, a way of borrowing audiobooks from your local library. I basically scrolled through all the books until I found one that was of sufficient length, and quite importantly, available for loan.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is based on Japanese mythology. It did not disappoint. Well actually, there was one huge disappointment, but I’ll come to later. The story starts off with a young boy losing his father and coming under the protection of his uncle. This does not bode well for our young hero. It soon transpires that the elderly Emperor is going to die and the sorcerer Prince Abbot wishes the Emperor’s second son to secede. Soon, our hero Shikonoko finds himself embroiled in magic and intrigue, as events beyond his control start to take over.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of different characters, and unlike certain other novels where the jumping of the story through time and space drives you crazy, in this book, each chapter succeeds in advancing the story in a logical manner.

What I like about this book is that it does not focus on the battles, the gore and the million and one ways of mutilating/causing pain to your your enemy. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments, but these are secondary and the author focuses on the characters, their motivations and their stories.

Some people have criticised Lian Hearn’s style of writing as being too simple, but from someone who has listened to the story rather than read it, I found it really soothing yet gripping.

As for my disappointment, this stemmed from me not knowing anything about the book. After some Googling, it transpired that I had in fact listened to books 1&2 of a 4-book series. My big disappointment had been the ending. No wonder I hadn’t enjoyed it, I was only halfway through! Now to find books 3&4 and to keep running.

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

This book is the first of a trilogy by up and coming author, Matthew Ward. The story encompasses two Kingdoms; the Tressian Republic and the Hadardi Empire, and follows a cast of heroes and heroines as they try and defend their home nations. 


Why do I like this book? Firstly, it is a chunk of a book. I love a good story that I can invest time into. Time to get to know my favourite character (I actually still haven’t figured out who that is), to watch them grow, and sometimes to surprise me. I like to watch the story unfold, through twists and turns, unable to put the book down when really I should be asleep. Shorter stories just don’t do that for me.


Obviously, it’s not the size of the book that matters if it is not a good story. Legacy of Ash has everything you can wish for from a fantasy novel; heroes & heroines, magic, intrigue, destiny, a pantheon of bickering Gods and Goddesses and dare I say it for fear of sounding like a preaching feminist, strong female characters. Hurr-flipping-ray. Not all of the strong female characters are sword-weilding valkyries (though some of them are), some are masters, I mean mistresses, of intrigue, some are homely and some are just dealing with the cards they’re dealt. I’d like to say that Matthew doesn’t make a sing and dance of this, but actually one of the plot arcs is specifically looking at women coming out of the shadow of their men-folk. That’s not my favourite plot-arc, but I am impressed that he did it.


Perhaps what I like most about Matthew’s work is that despite the genre, or perhaps that should be sub-genre, of his different works, there are elements that tie them all together. You can dip into his Coldharbour series, set in modern day London, or into some of his short stories and you can guarantee that there will be names or monsters you recognise that turn up unexpectedly. I am not familiar with any other author crossing worlds and ages like this, tying all the stories together.


I must admit I have a confession. I know the author. However, I genuinely enjoy reading his works and always look forward to reading the next installment.

Looking for contributors and other waffle-y ramblings

Yesterday I had a cry, as I’m sure many of you have felt compelled to do recently. The sort of cry that sneaks up on you after what already feels like an eternity of this ‘working from home’ lark, coupled with lack of decent sleep and the (entirely internal) pressure to be PRODUCING SOMETHING AMAZING AND CREATIVE, despite the fact that I never really did a whole lot of that in the first place.

<All of this said whilst recognising that I am in a privileged position to be able to safely work from home and not be caring for someone or trying to home school anyone. I am never taking that for granted, I promise you>

Whilst grappling around for one tiny thing that I can control, my aggressive inner-voice kept poking me and saying

You need to be posting on your blog.

You have about a thousand reviews to do.

Why don’t you stop scoffing biscuits while watching The Tiger King and get on with it?

BUT

I have since realised, that one of the things that I do not need to put pressure on myself for  at the moment is content for the blog.

People might want recommendations certainly. I’m all for that. But it really doesn’t have to be me. Other people might want to talk to the world about books, without the faff of setting up their own blog. Offbeat Book Club has always been a community and I’d love for the blog to reflect that more.

SO

Offbeat Book Club is looking for contributors. I want to help you to share your thoughts on the offbeat books that you’re reading with the world. No word counts, no restrictions, no hoity-toity referencing or academic-speak (unless that’s your thing!)

If that sounds like something you might be interested in, then drop me dm on Twitter/Instagram, or email –  offbeatbookclub@gmail.com and we can have a chat. Which will be nice.

Big virtual hugs and sloppy digital kisses,

Kelly

Review-ish: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

‘Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had’ 

I have to say, this fairly-new predilection for Greek myths has really led me to new authors (Miller) and introduced me to new sides to authors that I had previously read (Atwood and Barker). That’s why I love the Canongate Myth series. The books are small, I read this one easily in an evening, and utilise a core theme to introduce readers to new authors. And isn’t that what Offbeat Book Club is all about?

There seems to be some less-than-clear information online about who is writing for this series, but the books that have been published look very appealing. I have already gotten hold of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeannette Winterson. And, as they were published some time ago, they are often available second hand.

The Penelopiad follows the tale of the Odyssey, but from Penelope’s perspective, not only examining her relationship to the mythical hero, but also to the women that made up her court. These are presented in typical Greek fashion as a chorus of maidens and their voices carry throughout the story beautiful in the form of poetry (but in various guises each time). As we would expect from Atwood, Penelope is no longer a bit part or a passive character in the tale, but one who takes her destiny into her own hands and have to live with the consequences of her decisions.

As Mary Beard points out in her novel, Women and Power (review coming soon-ish!) Penelope has never really had a voice. She is silenced by her son, despite having rule the kingdom in her husbands absence. Telemachus, by virtue of being a man, has the authority. In this novella, we can hear, in her own words, the nuances and complexities of her experiences. She is certainly no saint, but neither is she wholly to blame for the fates of the women closest to her. 

I’ll keep it short, much like this novella. Its a weird time, and I’m giving a lot of thought to how Offbeat Book Club might help people who are staying at home more. Any ideas, then please comment below or pop my an email at offbeatbookclub@gmail.com.

Stay safe and kind. Enjoy the extra reading time!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club Notes – February

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li.

I must apologise, I was not altogether awake for this months meeting. Luckily, the group is more than capable of chatting away without my input. We used some of the suggested book club questions in the back of the book so guide the discussion.

Almost all of the group had read the book and found it to be a fairly quick read. Readers were definitely divided over their enjoyment of it, but most found exploring the Asian-American experience and Chinese culture interesting.

Thematically, we discussed the three different love stories, which varied due to age and experience of the people involved. We also chatted about the recurring theme of feet in the novel, and the toll that working in hospitality had on the characters feet.

We explored the differences between the generations, and how the American culture had impacted on the relationships between the characters. The concept of survival was strong throughout.

None of us found the characters particularly likeable. They were presented as controlling, and mostly selfish. Nearly all of them lacked self-reflection. Many of the older characters seemed disappointed in the next generation. Jimmy is the only one who seems to resolve his feelings and seems to come to an understanding about his Father, who is a strong presence throughout the book.

One reader described the characters that working in the restaurant as ‘knocking together so often that they end up fitting together’ which I thought was a really beautiful way of expressing the family-like relationships.

There was some division in the group about the language and style of the book, some found parts of it poetic, others found the vulgarity off-putting. We chatted about the fact that much of the book is written as if its Jimmy’s stream of consciousness, which could be a bit jarring when it changed perspective.

Overall, we felt that the book offered very little lightness, showing an often tragic side the characters experiences. It felt like some of the story-lines weren’t fully resolved. Generally, we didn’t love the end. Some of us wished for a different outcome, and some of us don’t like the six-months-later epilogue style.

Further reading/watching:

  • Parasite
  • The Farewell
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I’m well aware that I wasn’t entirely with it, and my notes weren’t great so please do chip in and comment below! I promise I’ll be more on it next time!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

‘Many will rant and rave against the garment fate has woven for them, but they pick it up and don it all the same, and most wear it to the end of their days. You… you would rather go naked into the storm.’

As my Robin Hobb reviews tend to be overly gushy, I thought I would review them as a trilogy, so any readers out there who aren’t fussed on fantasy can skip over this one! I really enjoyed one reviewers point that it only takes two readings for these books (that are huge by the way) to look battered. Me and the bloke mostly read these on holiday in Portugal so they really suffered from being stuffed in bags, and half buried in sand (and wine). I briefly wondered whether they could have been a quartet instead of a trilogy, but the stories work so well in the current format. So I will accept the size and the wrist-ache that came from reading them one after the other.

There was some googling required after finishing the Farseer series; it seems that some people crack straight on with the Tawny Man Series, which follows on from Farseer. But I was well-convinced that it was worth leaving Fitz behind for a while, to focus on Bingtown and its inhabitants. If anyone else is debating this, it seems a matter of preference. Some people enjoyed taking a break from the intensity of the Farseer storyline, and others were so into it they wanted to jump forward and then come back to Liveships. I’m a purist, so always want to read things in the way that the author intended.

There are wayyyy to many story-lines to begin to even touch on them (think Game of Thrones style, multiple plots that cross-over) but one of the significant plotlines is around the Liveships, a concept that I have never read about in fantasy books before. The Liveships are sentient ships, that are owned by trading families, and infused with the memories of their Captains. Its just fascinating, and develops in fantastic way over the trilogy.

I also loved that this trilogy was fantasy-at-sea. I always loved the sections of the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin where Ged, the hero, travels around the islands of the archipelago. So this felt a little like coming home. It makes it quite low-level fantasy, particularly in the first book, but is handled deftly and with respect to an audience that is looking for some magic. 

Other themes include morality, seeking refuge, family, class, race, rule, gender roles and expectations, tradition and obligation. But Hobb doesn’t smash you over the head with any of these, and doesn’t present a black and white view of any of them. 

As with the Farseer series, this trilogy is heavily character driven, introducing us to some of the most wonderfully complex, frustratingly flawed characters. One reviewer points out Hobbs use of perspective, with the action being seen through one characters eyes at at time, you can find yourself constantly switching allegiance.  Its a classic example of there being numerous sides to every story, and is refreshing in this format, allowing the reader to empathise with all of the characters and the decisions that they make. I surprised myself by doing a full 180 degree turn on one character, and I am very stubborn. Althea is a wonderful main character; spirited, flawed, and rallying against a society that would have her playing a role she can’t bear the thought of. 

Hobb manages to retain enough mystery to keep you rapt until the last page, with many of the twists and turns coming out of the blue (for me at least). There was one reveal that I genuinely didn’t notice until another Hobbnobb pointed it out to me. Goddamn my skim-reading.  To me, it is faultless writing. Unlike the Farseer trilogy where I found the pacing a bit patchy between the first and second books, this trilogy I found to be more consistently paced. I’m just grateful that I was mostly reading them on holiday because I really couldn’t put them down. I also had some very epic serpent-related dreams!

The trilogy ends in a particularly satisfying way, which is no mean feat when you consider the intricate story-lines that have been woven. I found the ending less emotionally exhausting than the end of the Farseer trilogy, but this is perhaps to be expected when you are reading the fates so many characters from their own perspectives, rather than the main character narrative of Fitz. 

I really couldn’t recommend these highly enough, even if you’re not a huge fan of the genre. If you’re into escapism and strong narratives, then the Livership Traders trilogy is a great place to start that journey. 

You can read my previous reviews of Hobbs work here:

The Assassins Apprentice

The Royal Assassin

The Assassins Quest

Kelly x

Insole Court Book Club Notes – January

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Firstly, a huge croeso to our the new book clubbers who have joined us this month. Really lovely to welcome you to our little group.


Secondly, after repeatedly receiving feedback from the bloke-at-home about the layout of the website and these book club notes sections, I’m going to try out a new format this month. Do let me know if its useful to you, regular book club attendees, those who come intermittently or those who read along from afar. Rather than a random list of comments and thoughts, I will try to provide more of a narrative of the discussion.


It was great to be back in the Reading Room at Insole Court and to see everyone after such a long break. 


**CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So this month, we were reading My Sister, the Serial Killer the debut novel of Oyinkan Braithewaite, a Nigerian born poet. It was recommended by a book club regular, who hadn’t read it before but thought it ticked our boxes and looked entertaining. Everyone had read it, which is no huge surprise as its a small book, and we’d had a big break since our last meeting before Xmas. We kicked off by discussing our general thoughts on the book; many of us were surprised by the depth of it. Some of us expected it to be a little light, or ‘silly’ and although it was very much an easy and quick read, and had comedic elements, it also had layers that keep you thinking well beyond the end of the book.


We moved onto discussing the theme of the authoritarian Father figure had come up in other books by Nigerian writers before. We wondered if this was reflective of the Nigerian society, especially at the class level of Korede and her family. Although not fully resolved in the book, many of us thought that Braithwaite implied that either one, or both of the girls had been responsible for their fathers death. 


‘The rain will drown you’ was pointed our as a particularly poetic phrase employed by the author. 


We discussed gender expectations, in Nigeria and in the UK and the role that your place in the family has on the expectations placed upon you. We felt that Korede, as the older sister, had been earmarked for a caring role from an early age. The fathers abuse had made Korede even more protective of her younger sister. Especially as the mother seemed disconnected from the world, and failed to see what was going on with her daughters in the present day. 


One member compared the marriage of Koredes parents to that of Muhtar and his wife. We found it poignant how loyal Koredes mother had been to her father, with the memorial party etc. But also reflecting on her little ways of rebelling, for example by wearing a colour he hated. 


We considered Korede’s own mental health. Did she have OCD? We wondered whether she actually enjoyed her role in the murders, enjoyed the drama. Enjoyed the challenge of not getting caught. She didn’t seem overly concerned about confessing to Muhtar when there was a chance that he might wake up. 
We discussed the impact on your moral compass of growing up in a society where corruption is rife. Could explain Ayoola’s lack of concern for getting caught, as she doesn’t respect authority. We got the impression that the police failed to really consider the girls as suspects as they were women and clearly wouldn’t be capable of murder! We also briefly considered why there are so few books about female serial killers, relenting that there just aren’t many female serial killers themselves. This then led to a fairly inappropriate discussion about fair representation and the lack of female serial killer role models!


We had a brief chat about social media etiquette in when it comes to mourning. How Femi was truly considered dead once there were no more mentions of him online. We thought this said a lot about our value. And how wrapped up Ayoola was in her own world. Was she a sociopath? She seemed to lack empathy and seemed quite vacuous. But we were aware that we only had Koredes viewpoint of her to go on. 


Neither sister appeared to have friends. Although the side characters were all really interesting. We found that Mohammed served a purpose, to show us that people considered to be of the lower classes could be victims of the upper classes way of life. Korede didn’t seem to have a good relationship with anyone, other than Tade who we felt she put on a pedestal. 


We touched on the horror of discovering that their Dad considered selling Ayoola, and the fact that this might have led her to see relationships with men as transactional, the lack of details about the murders and the poetry within the book as well. We also briefly discussed why Korede became so obsessed with her sisters boyfriends, and wondered whether she was desperate for a close relationship. 


Overall, we all felt that we would recommend it to others and enjoyed the conciseness of the writing. 

Further reading/watching:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Killing Eve on BBC iPlayer

Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.