Book Review: The Overstory

By: Richard Powers

Review:

The Overstory is nothing short of epic. The writing is original, insightful and challenging. I feel like I’ve been led on a journey through the forest of Powers mind, and it is a place of ‘fluid beauty’ (p.61). Like the central character – the trees – the storyline spirals out like annual growth rings, building layers of sublime narrative to merge the deep connections of humanity and nature. One of the many messages is that we need to listen with more humility and then perhaps we might be able to see.

‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’ (p. 336). And Powers sure has delivered just that, a story that’s impossible not to be changed by.

Pages: 493

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb:

The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond:

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling in a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A Hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing and speech impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another.

These four, and five other strangers – each summoned in different ways by trees – are brought together in a last violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. There is a world alongside ours – vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

By: Anthony Doerr

Review: Filled with beautifully crafted and poetic passages, it’s one of the most absorbing books that I’ve read in a long time. The story weaves around the lives of two families, transcending the WW2 setting to capture such vivid imagery that it’s as mesmerising as it’s sublime with a touch of magical realism.

It’s filled with philosophical passages that made me pause, re-read and take a moment to allow them to subsume into my thoughts. There’s an energy about this book that captured me for the duration, a true gift to a reader.

Pages: 528

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb: For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Book Review: Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Review: This is a book that matters. It makes us think about what can sometimes be seen as a paradox between the law and what is justice. We’re confronted with questioning how society views family loyalty, politics, race and religion and how the decisions we make impact each of our lives and what is means to feel connected and to belong. This is a book that challenges our world view by asking us to consider the different perspectives when it comes to extremism by opening the door to a level of understanding of the choices that individuals make.

I was captivated by Shamsies’ retelling of Sophocles ancient tragedy of Antigone, and compelled to explore a deeper understanding of how the classic is re-imagined through the contemporary setting. They’re both overwhelmingly good.

Pages: 288

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2018, Book of the Year 2015: Guardian; Observer; Telegraph; New Statesman; Evening Standard; New York Times, Shortlisted for the Coasta novel Award 2017, Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong, sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his birthright to lie up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

Book Review: ‘Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg

Review: Give me a good psychological horror, add in a hardback edition with haunting illustrations and the subtle formality of the writing style of the 1800’s, and you’ve nailed one of my many reading pleasures! This is a collection of seven short stories, some familiar and some new to me. Although none are truly terrifying, I must confess as I was driving home a week ago in the midst of a storm, a modern version of Amelia B. Edwards, ‘The Phantom Coach’, was playing out in my mind. Through these stories I was reminded of the mastery of Dickens with ‘The Signalman’, while being introduced to F. Marion Crawford, who had me sitting by the fire, three parts gone with a glass of Hulstkamp, right beside Captain Charles Braddock while listening to his tale of the screaming skull. Every now and then we need to be reminded of what good writing is, and it’s right here.

Pages: 175

Genre: Horror

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: A vengeful phantom lurks in a country graveyard. A whaling crew becomes trapped on a haunted ship. A human skull is kept locked in a cupboard, but sometimes at night, it screams….This collection of tales will transport you to a time when staircases creaked in old manor houses, and a candle could be blown out by a gust of wind, or by a passing ghost. Penned by some of the greatest Victorian novelists and masters of the ghost story genre, these stories come alive alongside exquisitely eerie art in this special illustrated edition.

Source: Dubin, E. (Designed by), Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg, (2017), Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Quarterly Bookclub 3 – Wrap

Good Morning All,

A big thank-you to Gina for hosting and her food spread, your table always looks amazing. I’ve decided that if one eats lots of fruit, it counterbalances the chocolate consumed. Fran, your spanakopita is spectacular, and welcome at any gathering!

Next Meetup: Friday, 29th June

Venue: Jody’s home, 7.00pm

Book: ‘White Teeth’, by Zadie Smith

Secondary Book: ‘Frankenstein’, by Mary Shelley

Poetry: Your choice

I love waking up to days like this. Today my little corner of the world is like a vortex, as the windows are flexing in the wind and from here the whitecaps on the water look almost tidal, a sea mist is hovering and threatening to descend. And now comes the rain, a perfect day to spend in my reading chair!

As I was leaving for Bookclub the other night I bumped into my neighbour. We had a quick chat about our various weekend plans, both commenting on the pleasures of a quiet weekend in. Descending in the elevator I reflected on the bottle of bubbly and the book in my hands, this wasn’t one of those nights, tonight I get to go down into the rabbit hole that in everyday life we tend to avoid for the sake of decorum and not offending or being offended. So that’s what Bookclub is to me, it’s a few hours where we get to talk about topics and themes where sometimes we’re objective and measured and sometimes we’re passionate and unrestrained, but we’re always thoughtful and respectful. For me, it’s a privilege to share time with this amazing group.

Moby Dick! What an expedition, and one that we’re all richer for having had, no matter how far each of us made it through this object of vertu. We all agreed that this certainly is a book that demands much from its reader, there’s no doubt that it’s bloody hard work, and yet it rewards you on every page. It teaches us, it makes us feel a little wiser, it respects us as readers, it assumes that we are capable and leaves us better off for having made it a part of our lives for however long. We were all in awe of Melville’s depth of knowledge at the age of thirty-one. This is the work of an exceptional writer which Sandy captures well, as it’s not just the ‘language, as well as the mind and personality of Melville that shines through. It is beautifully descriptive as well as philosophical.’ We all appreciated the short chapter style, allowing much needed respite at times, while adding to is charm.

So which rabbit hole did we fall into? Gina drew our attention to chapter 89 which gave an insight into the legislation around ownership at the time, using the analogy of a ‘harpooned woman’ and her being the possession of her husband, while pointedly asking the question directly to the reader about each of our part in being both ‘a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish’, a chapter I encourage everyone to read again or even on its own. While insightful in context of the time, it provided fodder for a fascinating discussion on equality of representation in organisations, positive discrimination and whether analogies can or even should be drawn with minority groups despite women being around half the population.

Moby-dick is a most certainly a gift to readers. If you ever have the opportunity to read this for the first time or again it will be worth every moment you invest in it. Make no mistake, it is hard work, but give yourself time and be patient and you will be better placed to tackle this leviathanic opus.

Just a quick comment about our secondary book; I was having a look at the ‘Readings Bookstore’ website under Bookclub recommendations and came across the suggestion to pair the original Frankenstein with a book, a reimagining of the original, that’s been long listed for this years Booker Prize, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’, by Ahmed Saadawi. Published in 2014, it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction so could be an interesting read also.

Until next time,

J xx

Book Review: The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage

by Philip Pullman

Review: Not normally one to pick up a book part way through a series, let alone a fantasy novel, I thought I’d make an exception for Philip Pullman’s much talked about novel in twenty years. Having no preconceptions of Pullman’s audience, I was surprised to discover that it’s the kind of book you could read to a pre-teen. It’s fantasy lite, well written and ticks all the boxes for a story that’s original and has good pace. It manages to discreetly touch on the topics of refugees, religious zealotry, political and social structures, freedom of thought, sexual predation, gender, empathy and climate change. I can see this as a book that provides an opportunity for parents to introduce all, some or none of these issues to conversations, or simply enjoy and wait for the second book in the series to be released no matter what age you are.

Number of pages: 546

Genre: Fiction, Pre-teen Fiction, Fantasy

Blurb: Malcolm was the landlord’s son, an only child…he had friends enough, but he was happiest on his own playing with his damon Asta in their canoe, which was called La Belle Savage.

Malcolm Polstead’s life in the pub beside the Thames is safe and happy enough, if uneventful. But during a winter of unceasing rain the forces of science, religion and politics begin to clash, and as the weather rises to a pitch of ferocity, all of Malcolm’s certainties are torn asunder.

Finding himself linked to a baby by the name of Lyra, Malcolm is forced to undertake the challenge of his life and to make a dangerous journey that will change him and Lyra for ever…

Twenty-two years after the publication of the ground-breaking His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman returns to this epic parallel world in a masterful new novel: the long-awaited volume one of The Book of Dust.

Blurb Source: Pullman, P., The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage, (2017), David Fickling Books, Oxford.

Book Review: Moby-Dick (or The Whale)

By Herman Melville

Review: Initially I was having trouble engaging with this book, repeatedly returning to the start as my reading was not doing it justice. I found an audio on Spotify, this worked by slowing down my reading and allowing me to really appreciate the breadth of mastery of the descriptive language combined with the formality of the 1800’s. There’s layers of references, some of which I grasped and some I didn’t, a richer experience for those that I did manage to connect with and awed – not frustrated – by those beyond my comprehension. Make no mistake, it’s dense, demanding, and sometimes you feel like you’re swimming through concrete, but it’s also intricate and poetic with many lines for pause, reflection and savouring. It’s filled with razor sharp observations; social commentary; character studies; philosophy; mythology; religious, scientific and historical analysis; tradition and superstition; and humanity. An epic and sophisticated book that places high expectations on its reader, yet I’m sure that the more life experience I have the more it will reward.

Pages: 625

Genre: Classics, Literary Fiction

First Published: 1851

Blurb: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Moby-Dick can be read as a “disorderly elegy” to democracy, which Melville saw threatened on many sides: by the spirit of utilitarianism, by America’s accelerating pace of expansionism, and by the drive toward industrial power. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

Blurb Source: Melville, H., (1992), Moby-Dick, New York, Penguin

* Please add your own (one paragraph only) reviews by using the ‘comments’ option.

Book Review: A Horse Walks into a Bar

by David Grossman

Review: What were the judges thinking when they awarded this the Booker International, surely we can do better than this? The setting of an Israeli stand-up comics routine going horribly wrong simply doesn’t work in this instance and ends up being gratuitous, unbelievable, repetitive and dull. By trying to tackle too many themes, the author manages to void any possibility of emotionally engaging, rendering the story scrappy and disjointed. Or perhaps it was just too clever for me!

Pages: 198

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: The Man Booker International Prize 2017

Blurb: A comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience has come expecting an evening of amusement. Instead they see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling, as a matter of choice, before their eyes. Dovaleh G, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a would he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between two people who were dearest to him.

Flaying alive both himself and the people watching him, Dov provokes revulsion and empathy from an audience that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and all this in the presence of a former childhood friend who is trying to understand why he’s been summoned to this performance…

Blurb Source: Grossman, D., (2016), A Horse Walks into a Bar, London, Penguin Random House UK.

Review: What were the judges thinking when they awarded this the Booker International, surely we can do better than this? The setting of an Israeli stand-up comics routine going horribly wrong simply doesn’t work in this instance and ends up being gratuitous, unbelievable, repetitive and dull. By trying to tackle too many themes, the author manages to void any possibility of emotionally engaging, rendering the story scrappy and disjointed. Or perhaps it was just too clever for me!

Pages: 198

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: The Man Booker International Prize 2017

* Please add your own (one paragraph only) reviews by using the ‘comments’ option.

Book Review: Mythos

by Stephen Fry

Review: What a fascinating and intriguing introduction into the world of Greek mythology. I had no idea it was so intricate, encompassing, influential and relevant to so much that we experience on a daily basis, from commonly known emblems like that seen on an ambulance to the many lexical derivations like xenophobes which originates from the word Xenia meaning hospitality, the sacred duties of hosts towards guests, and guests to hosts of which The King of the Gods was sometimes referred to as Zeus Xenios. The stories are wildly debauched, achingly tragic, and madly hilarious. There’s the constellations, why mulberries are crimson, the many associations with figs, Shakespearian references and why a spider weaves a web, I could go on and on! Fry has managed to awaken what I expect will be a life-long curiosity, how many books do we read that can do that? This book deserves a second reading.

Pages: 410

Genre: Fiction, Greek Mythology

Blurb: No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses. They are like us, only more so – their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.

From the birth of the universe to the creation of humankind, Stephen Fry – who fell in love with these tales as a child – retells these myths for our tragic, comic, fateful age. Witness Athena born from the cracking open of Zeus’s great head and follow Persephone down into the dark realm of Hades. Experience the terrible and endless fate of Prometheus after his betrayal of Zeus and shiver as Pandora opens her jar of evil torments.

The Greek gods are the best and worst of us, and in Stephen Fry’s hands they tell us who we are. Mythos – smart, funny and above all great fun – is the retelling we deserve by a man who has been entertaining the nation for over four decades.

Blurb Source: Fry, S., (2017), Mythos, Penguin Random House.

* Please add your own (one paragraph only) reviews by using the ‘comments’ option.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders

Review: Set in the cemetery and after the burial of Willie, President Lincoln’s eleven year old son. Saunders contextualises this moment in time by using historical excerpts to create a layered picture of the President and the year 1862. Through a complex and original style, we are introduced to the various souls trapped in the bardo, a Tibetan transitional realm, where we find heartbreak, humour, mayhem and madness. A challenging, yet rewarding book that will take you out of your reading comfort zone.

Pages: 343

Genre: Literary fiction, Magical realism

Awards: The Booker Prize 2017

Blurb: February 1862. The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. Days later, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body. From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – where ghosts mingle, squabble and commiserate, and a monumental struggle erupts over his soul…

Written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace, Lincoln in the Bardo invents a thrilling new form, and confirms him as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.

Blurb Source: Saunders, G., (2017), Lincoln in the Bardo, Great Britain, Bloomsbury Publishing.

* Please add your own (one paragraph only) reviews by using the ‘comments’ option.

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