Monday, 28 March 2011

TUESDAY EVENING BOOK CLUB: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson. With a title taken from the Emily Dickson poem, this is the fourth book to feature Jackson Brodie, the ‘retired’ private investigator. It opens with his searching for his lost wife, and adoptee Hope McMaster’s real parents.  The journey takes him on a quest around Yorkshire where simultaneously Tracy Waterhouse, also a retired policewoman embarks on a crazy quest to rescue a child. An aging actress busy searching for her ‘lost mind’ as she stumbles through the early stages of Alzheimer’s completes the triangle.

All three scenarios are cleverly weaved together. The consensus is Atkinson is clearly skilled and witty writer, although some of her social commentary on Great Britain today maybe lost to Australian readers.

Whilst not quite a crime novel, Atkinson highlights through her characters  the differences in England’s social structure between the old, and a new more egalitarian society. With an ending raising more questions than answers, it nonetheless employs a very entertaining, almost Dickenson view of characters, with their subsequent often fatal misadventures.

The dog however has a starring part.

Written by Tracy


O by Anonymous. This story covers the 2012 American presidential campaign alluding to Barack Obama as the incumbent President, running for his 2nd term. While it presents the views of the main parties, Democrat and Republican, with brief mentions of the Tea Party, overall the sympathies lie with the Democrats.

The story is written in a journalistic way and the tale of the campaign is interesting and enjoyable as long as the reader accepts the textbook-like style. The political strategies are enlightening and the difficulties of a running a campaign whilst in office are highlighted.

The book club think the development of characters is lightweight with little humour to add colour to the stories. No characters stand out as being particularly likable. Characters such as Walter are confusing, other than, perhaps, as a device to highlight how people can fall by the wayside of friendships. Some of the group were disappointed with the ending, others thought it was appropriate.

Written by Jennifer

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

SATURDAY MORNING BOOK CLUB: Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones

A small but animated group discussed the book Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones on Saturday 19 March 2011. There was a consensus not often seen in our bookclub as we all really enjoyed the book.
The book is beautifully written and crafted. We thought the cover was particularly poignant and reflective of the main character. Central to the book is the concept of a mother's determination and struggle to do anything possible to have contact with,to care for and protect her child. Ines, (interestingly we do not know her true name) the main character, is driven by an overwhelming maternal instinct to do extraordinary things.
The book is told in two parts. The first being the voices of the people Ines meets along her journey from Africa to Berlin in search of her son. These people tell a story of enormous empathy and kindness on the whole towards her with some notable exceptions. By the time we hear Ines' story we have formed some idea of her which is dispelled when we hear the same events as told by her. Our group felt the truth lay somewhere between.
The book touched on the refugee issue, surrogacy, the incredible cruelty inflicted on Ines esp by Jermayne, who is the father of her child and her determination to do anything (prostitute herself, have "hotel sex", steal from her employer) to ensure she can have some contact with her son, Daniel.
For all the travails Ines endures the ending is uplifting and hopeful. All in all a great read and thoroughly recommended by the Saturday morning bookclub.

Written by Ann

THURSDAY EVENING BOOK CLUB - Review of Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones

They say that there are always two sides to a story. Hand Me Down World proves there can be even more as it tells the same story from several sides, with vastly different voices from characters entwined in each others’ lives. While initially this is a confusing tactic, the story and its characters are drawn with such depth and sensitivity  that the author succeeds (in my humble view) in creating a very intriguing and unique novel.

Jones shines a bright light on the inequity of our contemporary world and in particular, on the plight of very poor women whose only currency is themselves. But he does so with empathy and without sounding like he’s on a soap box. These issues are not new – they have no doubt been happening since people appeared on Earth. But the disparity between the haves and the have-nots today is all the more shocking because of the size of the gap he shows us and the absolute desperation of those with nothing who face bleak futures and take such monumental risks in an effort to improve their lots. He puts a real person behind the news footage and media coverage we see with increasing frequency – such a personal account serves to redress the blasé attitude us haves have about the have-nots.

The absolute determination and strength in the woman we know as Ines is inspiring and illustrates the extent to which a mother will go for her child. On the flipside, Jermayne’s lack of compassion and cruel manipulation is distressing and highlights what some men do in positions of power over people who have nothing. The most beautiful contrast to Jermayne’s cruelty is portrayed however, by the generosity of Bernard and some of the earlier, smaller characters featured. In fact, I found myself feeling a little cross with Ines for what I perceived as hypocrisy – feeling that she was manipulating those around her for her own gains. An intentional ploy by the author perhaps? To illustrate to readers the complexity of people’s motivations and the choices individuals make as they journey through the ups and downs of life ... who could question or judge Ines’ attempt to seek her stolen child and her desire to have a meaningful relationship with him? What would anyone do faced with such a situation?

Such difficult social issues can be tricky to weave a tale around – they can appear shallow and trite, and sometimes may feel patronising but the journey Jones takes us on with Ines and the others is not at all like that. It does not pretend there is an easy answer, it does not even suggest there is an answer – which is probably the most truthful you can be about it.

Written by Madi

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

MONDAY MORNING BOOK CLUB: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao generated a lively discussion at the Monday Morning Book Club on February 14th:  the fact that it was Valentine’s Day only highlighting the theme of love.

The majority of members enjoyed the book, expressing enthusiasm especially for the style of writing with its lively mix of register, from the literary to the very colloquial.  The use of Spanish words liberally sprinkled throughout the text worried some, while others thought this device lent an authenticity of tone to a novel concerned with people from the Dominican Republic.  Similarly, some people found the use of footnotes to elucidate the history of the DR disconcerting, while others found them informative and entertaining.

The emphasis on the fantasy life of Oscar was thought to complement the theme of magic and voodoo permeating the culture and, although there was considerable violence in places, it was not overly dwelt upon and served to illustrate the atrocities of the regime of the dictator, Trujillo.   Many people also enjoyed the book’s more humorous aspects. 

Overall, most people thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Written by Barbara

SATURDAY MORNING BOOK CLUB: Review of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The book read and discussed by the Saturday book club, was Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  The group was unanimous, something quite unusual, in their praise for this book of short stories. Our agreement however did not prevent a spirited discussion of this woman who throughout the book made you laugh and cry.

The majority of the  stories are set in the small town in Maine where Olive Kitteridge has spent her life as a child, wife, mother, teacher and retiree, the characters in this small town are the mirror through which we the reader see Olive.

Olive, who at the end of the novel you feel you know and would recognise if you met her on the street, is beautifully drawn; Strout’s language is evocative of place and time. Certain details of events are revealed and others left to the reader’s imagination. The observations of human behaviour are extremely perceptive; you can feel the guilt, pain and longing of the various characters in the short stories.

The relationship between Olive and her husband is fascinating, you see the devotion of the couple, but there is the feeling there is a lack of physical intimacy and joy in the relationship. Olive’s jealousy of Henry’s employee is something that makes you squirm with embarrassment for Henry. To think, that his wife would do such a thing!

You realise toward the end that Olive is devoted to Henry, you wonder did he ever know this or whether he remained in the relationship for the child, reputation or any of the other reasons that hold people together.

Olive and Henry adore their only child and Olive tries to do what is best for him, or is it what is best for her? His perception of his mother is quite at odds with her view of herself. Olive’s relationships with her daughters in law are a good insight into human nature. Olive dislikes the organised, articulate and educated first wife, who is possible like her, but she has softer feelings for the disorganised easy going second wife who is her complete opposite. 

The observations made on human nature are very perceptive, the scene centring on the dress Olive made for her sons wedding, made me cringe in embarrassment for her. Strout also has the ability to remind you of yourself at a particular time, and to remind you that you may at times have been cruel, thoughtless or unkind to others. Olive’s panic at the airport is I am sure something we have all felt travelling, you could see the sweat and feel the fear.

Olive is practical and resourceful, willing to help others and go out of her way to help people in need, but she is unable or unwilling to express and demonstrate her feelings, other than in practical ways,  she has great difficulty expressing her love for her family and her community. She built her son a house but was unable to tell him how much she loved him.

The characters in each story are beautifully written, you feel them and their pain and joy, you understand their place in this community and their relationship with Olive, even though Olive may have no perception of her impact on others or the value of her relationships with others.

The end redeems Olive, she discovers she needs people and people need her.

The cover, always an important part of any book club discussion, in no way reflects the novel, it is really quite odd, perhaps this support the old adage don’t judge a book by it cover.

An excellent book or short stories and a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize, we would have voted for it!

Review by Paddy

Friday, 4 March 2011


How lucky we are for our first blog post to be about the night Brendan Cowell came to visit! When Megan suggested we read actor-writer-now author Brendan Cowell’s How It Feels for February book club I must admit there were doubts in the ranks. It may just have been a question of not knowing what to expect from a first-time novelist, but we needn’t have worried. Brendan is a born storyteller. A fan of his screenplays and plays (the only Hamlet who has kept me awake and enthralled throughout the entire play), I was eager to get into the story – especially since, by the time I picked up the book, Victoria had read it in one sitting (if one ever needs a recommendation, there it is). For me, it was well-written, fast-paced, engaging and raw, everything I love about a book – even if it did niggle at a few of my own wounds.

The minute discussion our group had before Brendan and his mum joined us saw a few differing opinions about the story but one prevailing thread – he could write. Even if the subject matter wasn’t to taste, the language rough and the themes sometimes disturbing, it was clear we had a book here that we all agreed had merit.

Brendan himself seemed both nervous but pleased to be with us discussing his work, admitting it was a dream to be invited to speak at a book club. We were thrilled to be his first. He answered questions openly and generously and after a while looked very at home in that small space with 12 women. When he read pages from his book I was torn between the worlds of Neil Cronk and Tom from Love My Way. His rugged voice with its unique intonations and expressions and genuine Sydney-ness brought  Neil’s story to life and I could just then imagine a little more clearly which parts of Neil were Brendan and which were Neil’s alone. Brendan certainly has a way of breathing life into characters, showing us their beauty and ugliness, doubts and fears.

He said he wanted to capture that feeling of youth before he forgot how it felt. How It Feels identifies how hard young mens’ youth and relationships can be, their struggles with life’s big decisions and finding out the hard way what it is to be a good man. It was obvious these were personal themes, though he remained cagey about which experiences in the book were taken directly from his own past.
It’s also a book that shines a light on the Shire (Sutherland Shire) – in all its glory and horror. As an insider who wanted to get out and then an outsider who wanted back in, it seemed here some of Neil’s issues were stemming from somewhere personal for the author.

I won’t go too far into the plot (as Brendan himself would not want that – just read the book) but I will say it’s a story that will stay with me. I think we all agreed – whether we liked the story or not – that Brendan Cowell is a bloody good writer. We’re all now waiting for what Brendan does next.
In honour of Brendan’s visit, our March read is The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead – one of his favourites.

Written by Leila