Tag: Review

Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’ – a review

Having just completed the reading of three books which meant nothing, and which irritated and which annoyed me, I was thankful that ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’ had arrived at the top of my reading list.

It is the story of Isabel, who lives in genteel comfort with her daily housekeeper Grace. Isabel experiences the unfortunate falling of a young man from the top tier of a concert hall. When the young man dies, she can’t help wanting to know more, given that she was likely the last person to have eye contact with him before he hit the ground.

The book’s name comes about because Isabel is editor of a philosophy journal, and the book regularly refers to the ‘Sunday Philosophy Club’. As in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ snippets of everyday life are interspersed with philosophical considerations and wonderings, both academic and everyday. We also get inside the head of Isabel. She’s intense, interesting and popular, but harbours a secret crush on her niece’s ex-boyfriend.

Having been encouraged to read quite a few of Alexander McCall-Smith’s other works, I came to this book with a preconceived idea of what TSPC might offer.

In general, I was pleasantly surprised. There were inevitably a few issues – for example, where the writing indicates the POV of more than one character.  It is something I’ve worked hard to remove from my writing, so am ultra-aware.

But, as a philosophy graduate and a fan of music-related writing, a book featuring not only a philosopher but also a musician meant I was happy to continue reading this enjoyable and relaxing book. Though there was no real depth, no real character development, and no real plot, I did enjoy reading this rambling, ambling thought process and musings on everyday events.

It’s been a few years since I read a McCall-Smith book. I think I’ll read some more.

#meredithschumann #review #reviews #alexandermccallsmith #thesundayphilosophyclub #bookreviews

Meredith Schumann’s Review of ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ by James Lee Burke

The protagonist of James Lee Burke’s ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ is a man called Dave Robicheaux. He sounds a good guy who is trying to put a ‘life of violence and crime behind him, leaving homicide to run a boat-rental business in Louisiana’s bayou country.’

So, that’s all well and good. Potentially interesting, even.

Within the first few pages we read of Dave who is out fishing with his wife, Annie, and how they observe a small plane crashing into the sea. It isn’t long before Dave dives to the wreckage and finds four bodies and a little girl, barely alive.

At this point I was still thinking I might enjoy the book. After all, the first few pages set a colourful scene of bayou fishing and Louisiana life, but things quickly went downhill. The largest part of this novel was truly awful. Of the 350 pages in this edition, I found only 25 or so in any way compelling…

Why?

Problem #1 – Sex

The film of the book was described as an ‘erotic thriller’ and it is obvious within a few pages of beginning the book that that the reader would be subjected to more than the average number of sex scenes.  To be fair, those scenes aren’t badly written, but there are far too many. Also, they are relatively tasteful, but not at all erotic!

Problem #2 – So Dated

Though the book was written in the 1980s, the style and language of the writing were far more reminiscent of the early 20th century, say the period between the 30s to 50s. I wish I could say that I enjoyed the dated feel as generally I do love early 20th century work, but it was irritating. Almost offensive.

Problem #3 – The Race Issue & Lazy Writing

I don’t think I’ve read another book where the writer thinks it is adequate to simply describe person after person as ‘Negro’ – as if that is the only character point of any relevance. I would definitely have preferred to hear how white sweat drops dropped onto a black man’s skin while he did something or said something, rather than hearing yet another simple telling that there was a ‘Negro man’ over there. Within two chapters I was getting VERY annoyed. Within four, I was bored. And I’m a person who NEVER gets bored.†

Problem #4 – Cliched Seediness

Most of the book is about revenge, low-life people, drinking, drugs, crime, murder, whoring and eating. Sigh.

Problem #5 – Pointlessly Complex Yet Far Too Simplistic

The book begins with a crashed plane, but the plot (such as it is) soon deviates from this. It should have been the focal issue, yet instead served merely as an introduction, and as a way of bringing a little girl Alafair (who was largely irrelevant to the story) into the life of Dave.  Instead we get plots and sub-plots, wonderings, erratic action and pointless crimes. None of these seem to drive the story forward, instead just confuse the reader. Despite the plot’s meanderings, the writing style was far too simplistic and regularly incorporated a ‘the sky was blue’ feel which was deeply unsatisfying to the reader.

In Summary

‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ – I’m not even sure I understand where it got its name. Neither writing nor story were heavenly and my attention was at no point held captive.

I was utterly gobsmacked to discover it had been regarded so highly that it was made into a film. One word comes most readily to mind – ‘Why?’

In short, ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ was dated, dull and not at all deep. The front cover made a tasty snack for my guinea pig, and that’s the best I can say about the book and its contents.

#jamesleeburke #heaven’sprisoners #review

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens. A Review

What is the point in writing yet another review of a classic? None. Other than for personal satisfaction and as a reminder of what I managed to finish. Just.

This isn’t one of my favourites, even though I feel as though it should be. Written in 1854, ‘Hard Times’ was originally serialised in 20 parts, and explores the world of fact and a simultaneous neglect of the world of the imagination – and does so in a way that is clearly a satire on the society of the day. ‘Hard Times’ (originally called ‘Hard Times – For These Times’) was Charles Dickens’ tenth novel and the world it explores is a fictional northern England town, Coketown. So far so good. But yet not good at all.

I have little time and even less inclination to read books I don’t find compelling, just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, I became impatient quite early on in my reading of this book, my inclination being very much reduced.

Because of this I went onto YouTube and decided to listen to an audio version first – just to get me in the mood, and to see if I could better connect with the story and the characters. But even this didn’t help.

‘Hard Times’ is a terrifying voyeuristic tromp through the realms of good old-fashioned Victorian misery. The fear and stifling practicality of Mr Gradgrind’s school destroys the joy of many of its children. The foul-smelling canal accompanies Josiah Bounderby’s rise from the gutter and his proposal of marriage to the much-much-younger and ground-down Louisa. I’ve read elsewhere that strong-yet-pathetic yet likeable Louisa is a fictionalisation of John Stuart Mill. But I just found her incredibly sad and depressing, and not in a way that I could extract inspiration from her.

Ok yes, this is an intricate and complex story. Sub-plots abound.  Personally, I wonder if it might be a better book if the sub-plots (such as Sissy’s story) were to remain in the foreground and not be side-lined.

My reading group were irritated by the dialect writing, and so was I. I was even more annoyed by the writing of Sleary’s lisp. Stephen Blackpool with his alcoholic wife and his sweetheart Rachael were a good and endearing story, but the way the dialogue was written removed any softness and identification by me. It is as if Dickens uses dialect as a substitute for deep characterisation. And it grates.  

To me, ‘Hard Times’ is a essentially the constant and predictable moaning of opinionated middle-aged, middle-class, annoying old men: shallow characters who go over the same ground over and over and over and over again.  The book could have been reduced by about a third and not have lost anything substance-wise.

There is enough morality and politics in this book to satisfy anyone who enjoys that kind of social commentary, but perhaps not enough story and humanity to satisfy those of us who enjoy psychological depth and complexity.

#charlesdickens #coketown #dickens #forthesetimes #hardtimes #review

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

#book #bookreview #chevalier #oberlin #ohioanabookaward #quaker #review #richardandjudybookclub #rosetremain #slave #thelastrunaway #tracychevalier #undergroundrailroad

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂

‘The Year of the Runaways’ (by Sunjeev Sahota)

Questions relating to Masters Degree exercise

Sahota’s novel is perhaps less stylistically innovative than some of the other novels we’ve read on the unit. How did you respond to his prose style? How would you characterise it (what key features would you identify)? Does ‘stylistic innovation’ matter to you as a reader?

The prose style is basic but I do view it as a kind of positive in this book.The ways Sahota writes does enable clarity and reduces the ambiguity we’ve seen in many of the other course novels, though I have to agree with certain reviewers who have described it as workmanlike, pedestrian and overly simplistic. The reader can tell who is speaking and won’t need to re-read sentences in order to make sense of them.It is a good job really, as there is already potential for confusion with the lack of clear characterisation and the use of Punjabi.I do find that when a book is complex of plot, or when the characters and places are words you aren’t familiar with, then I, as a reader, do appreciate a simpler format and style.
Stylistic innovation matters little to me when I am reading.What matters more is that the story is well told and effectively written, whether this is in flowery descriptive prose or in short, terse tag lines.Provided the style matches the material rather than overwhelms it, all styles have their plus points.
The Year of the Runaways follows four main characters – Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder – through the use of discrete narrative sections. In this regard it might be compared to other novels on the unit, such as NW, Arlington Park, and The Heart Goes Last.
 
In terms of stranding, what differences or similarities can you see between Runaways and these other novels? Do you feel that Sahota’s approach has any significant advantages or disadvantages in relation to the others?What effects does Sahota’s approach to stranding have upon the way we interpret the novel’s characters? As in most of the other books we’ve looked at, plot and action aren’t always entirely clearly drawn. Clear stranding therefore does help, as does the revealing of character history. Did you find the novel more ‘readable’ as a result of this approach?
I am not sure that I find this novel overly readable.I like the style and structure but the lack of book’s length and its clarity regarding the characters did cause problems for me.One Goodreads review says “it’s as if Sahota has decided that realism demands minute attention to detail, no matter how uninteresting the detail. Yes, the lives of the young men are a grind, often boring, repetitive and exhausting, but the detailing of it puts a serious drag on the book’s momentum”.
 
The novel utilises third-person narration. As we have discussed in previous sessions, point of view has a fundamental effect upon the meanings generated by a novel. How would the novel have changed had Sahota opted to use the first person for each character?
The use of first person would have given the stories a more personal feel, and this wouldn’t have necessarily allowed us to view the characters in the same way.We’d be much more subjective rather than objective.Also, the novel seems to have been built on the external lives of the characters rather than the internal dialogues which are inevitable as a result of the use of first person.
 
The first chapter – ‘Arrivals’ – introduces the novel’s four main characters before focussing upon each on in turn. How successful do you feel this opening is? What kinds of expectations does it establish for the reader? How does it ‘frame’ the subsequent story?
I quite enjoyed the opening to this book, though it wasn’t always clear who everyone was.I found it gave a strong sense of how the young men lived and how seedy their lives had become.Yes, it does ‘frame’ the story by rooting its beginning in a time and place, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of who the story is about.What I found interesting was the acceptance mixed in with the conflicting interests, the religion and the secular society, loyalty and reasons for being where they were.The beginning of the book gave the reader a window into the kinds of people, the seedy locations, the overcrowding and some of the generalised anxiety involved.
 
Are the strands given equal weight in terms of length? Did you feel each character was equally well served?
Each of the strands is substantial enough to work as its own, but none of the stories would be enough to keep my interest.I do feel that a novel should be more than a group of interconnected stories, and I don’t think this novel succeeded.I can’t clarify about what element should tie them together, and on the surface it does appear that there are very clear connections between the characters, but to me, it seemed it was only their proximity and their lives.Psychological links are what I want, and I didn’t really get them here.
Narinder is the only character who hasn’t been completely squashed by the way they are all living, perhaps because she’s a local and understands the country’s systems a little better?Who knows?
I also wasn’t sure that any of the main characters were actually fully rounded – perhaps this is what stopped my feeling the links between them.Narinder is the most likeable because of her sacrifice but all the characters have sacrificed themselves quite large extents.All have suffered and all were important to the story’s flow.
 
How successfully does the novel deal with time (for example, you might think about the sections which employ analepsis, and the ‘present’ of the year in the title)?
It is hard to get into the world of this novel and to comprehend how these young immigrants must be living.We hear about what goes on but don’t get much feedback on how they feel about it.The novel takes place over a year and cover how life treats the main protagonists during that time.During the story, much is mentioned of their pasts, and this use of analepsis is necessary in order to get some sense of what the characters are background-wise in comparison with where they find themselves at the time of the novel’s writing. I don’t feel that the novel dealt with time all that clearly owing to the characters’ lack of inner lives. Though the majority of the novel’s narration and dialogue is in English, Sahota uses a great deal of Punjabi dialect throughout. Some of that usage is accompanied by clarification: ‘Not far from the train station he stopped outside a theka, a liquor store’ (41), or ‘“Vo he tho hai mera naam,” Kishen finished. A schoolyard phrase, about their names being all they owned’ (58). However, the majority of dialect is not defined: ‘So, even in England she wore a kesri. A domed deep-green one that matched her salwar kameez’ (3), or ‘Three days after Navratri, the rains came, blasting the red earth.’ (59)
 
How did you respond to the frequent use of Indian dialects in the novel? What sorts of effects does it generate? How does it position the (non-Punjabi-speaking) reader?
The frequent use of Indian dialogues can be dealt with in a number of ways.The reader can sit in front of a computer or dictionary and look up each unknown word, as I did when I first began reading this book.However, after a little while this impedes the flow of the book.It gives the effect of making the non-Punjabi speaking reader feel more of an alien, perhaps this being intended because the characters are all aliens in a foreign place too.I quite enjoy the frequent use of Punjabi words, but found the three male characters’ names and characters to not be well defined enough, so I got mixed up almost all the way through the book!A Goodreads review puts it very well- “
 
Given the presentation of his characters’ speech and thought into English, is Sahota’s use of Indian dialects necessary, in your opinion?
Because there is little interior life for any of this book’s characters, the story is all about who does what – and when.It is left to the reader to work out how the characters are feeling, emotionally.In some ways this makes the reader feel that the characters are more helpless and this draws us in a little into their lives with a sense of curiosity.Few comments are made by the characters regarding how bad their lives are, though they clearly live pretty unpleasant lives.It is my feeling that the static nature of the characters only really comes to life when the Punjabi words give them a sense of racial identity.
 
In a more general sense, how do these two types of usage (defined and undefined) position the reader, respectively? Is one approach more successful than the other, in your opinion? Might either approach work well, depending on the novel?
When the usage is defined, the writer is assuming that the reader is not a Punjabi speaker or familiar with the details of these lives.This puts the reader in a position of being an informed alien.When the usage is not defined, it gives another alien sense.It’s like being at a meeting where everyone else has a clear understanding of the agenda, specific business-related acronyms etc, and you are lost in a sea of strange language.You struggle on as well as you can but are always looking for clues to make sense of the situation.This book’s approach, using both defined and undefined, does actually work.It is one of the stronger elements of the novel.
 
Similarly, how important is it for the reader to have a grasp of the contexts of the novel – the Indian caste system, Hindu nationalist violence, the Sikh religion? Does the novel assume that the reader already possesses such knowledge, or does it impart it? How relatable did you find the story and its characters?
It isn’t important to have a grasp of all the contexts, though I think it is vital to realise that when the people come to another country, it isn’t all about economics – it is about family honour, politics, class, and so many other things.If a reader had no idea,then the background writing of India does give some background.Even if we don’t fully understand, we can appreciate some of what these desperate characters may be going through. There is a lot of veiled sociological criticism but, as a Goodreads review reads – “…
 
We have discussed the language of place and setting in relation to other novels on the unit (most notably Arlington Park and The Road). Think about the way in which India and England are described in The Year of the Runaways. Are these settings adequately distinguished or individualised, in your opinion?
Having never been to India I cannot speak from person experience, but I do feel that the setting is quite well described.I felt about the setting much as I did with that described in “Time for a Tiger”. “The Road” has a strong sense of place, though the details of place are more sordid and person-specific, rather than area-specific.“Arlington Park” uses a location built around a sense of middle class superiority yet simultaneous lack of satisfaction.The settings described by Sahota are specific and vibrant (in the case of India), but damp, drab and unfriendly (in the case of England).What the book lacks regarding character differentiation, it makes up for with the setting differentiation.
 
How does the novel explore the relationship between the ‘runaways’ and England? How ‘complete’ a picture of the country and its people does the novel offer?
The three male ‘runaways’ have little or no relationship with the country or society of England.Their existence within England seems to have been forced upon them by circumstance, and have become entirely an economic transaction, there being little or no inter-racial integration.This must be intentional, for how on earth could the workers be so exploited if their friend groups were able to defend them and give them a sense of contrast with the outside world of non-immigrant working people in England.Because of this, I didn’t feel there was a detailed or evocative image of England written.England was a backdrop for squalor, as was India, and, though there were clear differences between the European and Asian scene settings, I didn’t get a clear sense of place for the writing about England (though I did for India).Narinder, the only female runaway, was the only one to originate in the UK.She spent time alone, on public transport, at temple and community centre etc.She was able to do this, being a legitimate UK citizen.So, although she still spent much of her time within her own community, she did have more of a historical and current relationship with the country than the others did.
 
How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did it provide a satisfying pay-off?
Although I generally enjoyed the book’s simple prose, the use of Punjabi and the feel of the novel, I didn’t really feel the plot was satisfying, particularly the ending.  The only main female character seemed inserted into the action.  A man needed a visa wife, and in came Narinder.  Though her character was the most likeable and had the most convincing psychological status, she was required to give legitimacy to her husband but her story was very much too short, especially considering it was one of the major pivots for the whole book.  This was a book which was too long, disconnecting, and which lost my interest very quickly.  Like Narinder, the epilogue seemed added on as an afterthought and as a result it was unsatisfying.  I would have preferred the story to end inconclusively, possibly with the threat of deportations and the promise of a good job giving the reader something to consider about the characters’ future, rather than the reader being presented with a future of little interest. 

#india #punjabi #review #sunjeevsahota #theyearoftherunaways #thoughts