Category Archives: My Book Groups

Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

Well, what mixed bag of opinions there were about Red April at my latest book group! I myself had very muddled feelings about this novel which I will try to explain as clearly as possible.

Red April is what I can best describe as a political thriller / serial killer novel written by Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo. From the cover and comments on the flyleaf I expected a murder investigation of a religiously motivated killer, but the plot is thicker than that. Roncagliolo sets the story amidst the heavy atmosphere of military rule under Alberto Fujimori (1999-2000). The story is set against the backdrop of violent ‘terrorist’ insurgent activity against heavyhanded, corrupt and downright confused rule by the state. When a man is brutally murdered, prosecutor Felix Chacaltana finds himself mired in a gruesome investigation.

I’m not sure if this is partly due to my reading this book when I was having a busy week but I did get a sense that it was quite disjointed. The story covers a wide variety of scenes and circumstances including a paricularly gruesome episode where Chacaltana is sent to a godforsaken village in the sticks where terrorists regularly attack and leave mutilated dogs hanging from posts as their calling card. While I found this fascinating reading I occasionally felt that the author was trying to pack too much in by making a not too subtle political commentary at the same time as constructing a complicated murder mystery. I really enjoy learning about the history and culture of a country through its literature, but not feeling that prior knowledge of the political circumstances are a prerequisite. I felt this about Red April and this made it more difficult for me to get a full picture of the motivations of different characters in the book.

That said, the story was gripping and I didn’t guess who the murderer was. I enjoyed being led down the garden path and was oblivious to the red herrings. While I didn’t like the character of the prosecuter I did think that he was an interesting protagonist and Roncagliolo took care to really develop his character. I found the story gruesome, perhaps satisfyingly so in the sense that it felt like a gritty expose of civilians living a hellish existence. I found myself wondering how on earth this could have been happening at the dawn of the millenium and I was completely oblivious.

So the reason why my rating for this book is so critical is not because it was badly written (which it wasn’t) and not because I didn’t find it insightful (I did), but because I feel that it had the potential to be really excellent but fell down somewhere. For me, Red April tried too hard to be a thriller and also say something meaningful so that neither aspects were as slick as they could have been. I also felt as if it could have subtly given me more background on Peruvian politics rather than assuming I should already. I probably should but then teaching people through fiction is an art which was only partially employed here. An eye-opening if slightly frustrating read for me.

My rating:
6 out of 10

Have you read any books by Peruvian authors?

I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

I read The Book Thief about a year ago and really enjoyed it, so when Simon picked another Markus Zusak book – I am the Messenger – for Riverside Readers, I was delighted.

I am the Messenger couldn’t be more different in context than The Book Thief although stylistically it is not too far removed in the way that it uses dark humour and vivid characters to convey themes of humanity and personal development. The story begins when protagonist Ed Kennedy becomes an accidental hero at the scene of a bank robbery. Afterwards he begins receiving cryptic messages delivered on playing cards. He undertakes a series of missions which bring him into contact with a range of different characters. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful – his experiences turn his life up-side down.

Forthright and down-to-earth, Ed is a likeable character although definitely an unlikely hero. A 19 year old Aussie cab driver, Ed’s life doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere special and he is acutely aware of his failings (“bad at sex”) and generally believing himself to be a hopeless case. He is constantly harangued by his rather hard-nosed mother and lives in the shadow of his dead father’s alcoholism. I found that the first person narrative in the story was really well executed and I really enjoyed Ed’s affable, self aware voice as well as his detailed descriptions of the character flaws and strengths of his close friends.

I am the Messenger has been categorised as a crossover book and I can see it sits across young adult / adult fiction genres. There is a strong message of personal growth and it is also structured and written in a clear way which makes it very readable. I did think that it was clever (if a little contrived) that the chapters corresponded to the suits and numbers of cards in a deck. These manageable chapters along with the conversational tone made for a pacy read. I do think that it managed to avoid being over emotional, however at times the underlying messages of the book were unsubtle and the developing love story hard to miss. Content-wise for the young adult category, I would say that it is probably suited at mid-teen age range. Constantly navel gazing when it comes to his problems in the love department Ed’s thoughts are often sex-oriented, although they tend to be insightful and funny rather than gratuitous. I definitely had the sense that I was stuck inside the head of a young man!

The best thing about the book was definitely some of the touching scenes and encounters with the people that Ed delivers messages to. There were also some pretty dark moments particularly at the beginning of the book which seemed designed to make the reader thing about what they might personally do in the situation. I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life but it was a really enjoyable and original read, and for me confirms that Zusak is a master of tugging at the heart strings without a saccharine-sweet approach.

My rating:

7 out of 10

What young adult or crossover fiction have you read an enjoyed?

The Weight of a Mustard Seed, by Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed by Wendell Steavenson was Kim’s choice (Reading Matters) for the Riverside Readers book Group. It was our first non-fiction book and turned out to be an excellent choice provoking a variety of different viewpoints and making for a discussion that started out on the balance of power in Iraq and ending up as an exploration of whether the Internet could be used to control the world!

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a patchwork of stories that Steavenson collected during her time in Iraq as a journalist from 2003 onwards. She focuses on the life of General Kamel Sachet, using her interviews with his family and friends to explore the mindset and motivation of an Iraqi general and from this, the wider effect of the violent history of Iraq on its people.

I would describe The Weight of a Mustard Seed as a Fiction, Non-fiction hybrid. Steavenson mixes stylistic elements like themed chapters (Shame, Pride, Waiting) and some wonderful descriptive prose with cold hard fact and detailed descriptions of battles and dialogues between key characters. I particularly appreciated the way that Steavenson used references to everyday things to emphasise that Iraq was a civilised country like any other, interspersed with images of violence to show the effect of the years of war in it’s becoming a place of chaos and tragedy.

Steavenson takes journalistic license to re-interpret the motivations of the people she talks to. In parts she makes sweeping statements which might be bordering on patronising, but more times than not, she does effectively to sum up her viewpoint for the reader.

“It was an ordinary everyday tragedy, the same as any other of the unnumbered millions, a man killed….It was a tragedy of hubris: of pride, over-confidence, self certainty. Kamel Sachet’s end was a very Iraqi tragedy, but Iraq was not a Shakespeare play, plotted as one man, his destiny and a final curtain. It was only an episode in a long-running serial.”

Of course, Steavenson as an outsider that means that she has to interpret and puzzle over the behaviours of the people she meets and I think that this mirrors the perspective of the reader, themselves a ‘foreigner’ trying to understand the characters. I felt that she did a good job of representing what she saw faithfully and at the same time bringing in her own viewpoint.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed is an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Although some idea of the history of the Iraqi wars does admittedly help, I don’t think that the reader would lose the overall mood or miss the themes that Steavenson conveys without this knowledge. In a way I feel as if the dates and events are just collateral around which Stevenson plots the human aspects of the book. If anything, The Weight of a Mustard Seed could be read as a starting point from which a reader would be inspired to learn more.

I found The Weight of a Mustard Seed a fascinating and moving piece of writing. I thought that Stevenson was subtle enough not to need to linger too long on particular violent incidents, while conveying the threatening mood and sadness of the situation to great effect. She seeks to understand the behaviour of Kamel Sachet but doesn’t let him off the hook, weighing up his bravery, his faults and his crimes, provoking the reader into thinking for themselves.

My rating:

7.5 out of 10

Other thoughts on this book can be found at: Savidge Reads

Have you read any good books about Iraq? Do you prefer to read factual books or learn about the world indirectly through fiction?

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

I have to admit that when Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) chose Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) for our Riverside Readers book group, I was a little dubious (sorry Jackie!). Firstly, it involved a mouse called Algernon (“silly name for a mouse” I thought), and the copy that Jackie showed us had a rather spooky sci-fi looking cover with a maze on it. I can’t help it, I’m a book cover snob.

Little did I expect to completely fall in love with it…

Flowers for Algernon is the story of a 32 year old man – Charley Gordon, who is given an operation to correct his mental disability and allow him to learn. The experiment has been tested on a mouse called Algernon, who has become something of a super-mouse with an ability to figure out complex puzzles (hence the maze on the cover). At the start of the book Charley works as a cleaner in a bakery and has an IQ of 68. We read the book in the form of ‘progress reports’ which are written by Charley himself, so the reader is instantly given a special insight into his perspective on the situation. His initial reports are at first childlike, and confused, but develop as the experiment affects him. I won’t go into too much detail on the storyline, but I will say that the reader goes on a remarkable journey with Charley, exploring the relationships he has before and after the change, his disjointed family background and the experiences he has of the world as he develops. The actual timeframe that the book covers is very short (less than a year) but it feels like a lifetime in terms of the discoveries and changes that Charley undergoes.

I don’t know about you, but reading a synopsis of this book wouldn’t have made me want to read it, but I am so pleased that I did. The writing style was fluid and engaging (I was completely absorbed for 2 days), the characters incredibly realistic and the idea once I’d started reading was so compelling that I found myself believing that this was a real person and a real experiment. It’s also an incredibly moving book, and really makes you switch on to the ideas expressed in a skillful way (i.e. without being over dramatic or sickly-sweet). At times I loved Charley, and felt deep empathy and at others I was disappointed in him and upset, and I responded to him as a real human rather than a creation.

The book posed all sorts of questions for me like; Was he better off before or after? How does intelligence define personality? Was it worth it? Was it a moral experiment? As a book group choice it provided excellent fodder for discussion and I think that it would appeal to a wide spectrum of people, who might not think to pick it up. I would seriously urge you to get a copy!

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?
Have you read any books that surprised you?

Want another opinion? Read my other book group members thoughts. A link to Savidge Reads and Farm Lane Books Blog is here, and Kimbofo of Reading Matters has also written a review.

Interested in the Riverside Reader’s London-based group? Click here to find out more.

A Year’s Worth of Great Book Group Choices

Last night I went along to my regular book group at the South Bank and I have to say that the choice – George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four went down a storm. For me and a couple of others it was a re-read and for other people it was one of those that they always meant to read but never got around too and I think it’s fair to say they were glad they finally did!

I’m not going to review it here, as I will just waffle on and Savidge Reads has done an excellent synopsis and review, but I will say that reading it again I really appreciated the language and imagery because I wasn’t struggling to get to grips with the new world and ideas in the book. What it did get me thinking about though was what makes for a good ‘book group’ choice. I think that Nineteen Eighty-Four contains the key elements that for me make a great choice. I think these are;

  1. Challenges what you think you know / encourages you to think differently
  2. High standard of writing but;
  3. Is accessible (not too obscure or confusing)

It’s difficult to judge whether a book will be enjoyable, with so many different tastes in a group but I think if you fulfil these 3 criteria then you have the good basis for a debate and a feeling of satisfaction that you’ve read something worthwhile.

My 12 favourite books that I’ve read and enjoyed as part of a book group are:

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Atonement– Ian McEwan

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Animal’s People – Indra Sinha

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golding

The Handmaid’s Tale (Contemporary classics) – Margaret Atwood

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

 

What book group choices have you enjoyed and why?

Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served The King of England: Book Group 4

served-king-englandI Served the King of England, was the third choice for the London-based book group I go along to monthly and which is hosted by Simon (Savidge Reads) and Kim (Kimbofo of Reading Matters). Unfortunately I’m not able to be at book group this week because of a work quiz for charity (which obviously I aim to win!) but these thoughts will be going live as the book group commences so I suppose I’ll be there in spirit.

In many ways, I Served the King of England is a novel of two halves. In the first part, Ditie (our waiter protagonist/commentator) is serving curious characters and climbing the hotel food chain, discovering his love of women along the way. Then we reach a turning point where he marries a German girl and is subjected to ‘scientific analysis’ to find out whether he – a Czech, is suitable enough to marry this ‘pure aryan’ angel and make babies for the new empire. Without giving too much away, in the second half of the book we see how Ditie accumulates wealth, and then loses it and feel the impact of the aftermath of the Second World War on the people of Czechoslovakia.

I can’t say that I’d ever heard of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal when Claire (Paperback Reader) announced her choice, but heartened by her description of the blurb I ordered my copy on Amazon and was slightly abashed to see glowing commendations plastered on the cover from the likes of Milan Kundera and the Times Literary Supplement. So that certainly piqued my interest but did it live up to expectations?

The character of Ditie is funny by being so forthright about his lavicious desire for women and his observations of the strange hotel guests that he comes across. While Ditie is initiated into the world of sex via prostitution at “Paradise’s” and enjoys women as often as he can his character is not misogynistic in any way. In fact he was almost revered the female form – adorning laps and bodies with flowers to make them even more beautiful.

I did feel that Ditie had ‘small man’ issues!  He often refers to his own size and seems self conscious about it. But he makes up for his size with a certain ambition and has an epiphany that money will bring him the things he desires. He learns to create a ‘big man’ persona by showing-off, for example tipping an extra 200 crowns, or throwing pocket change in the air for others to scrabble for.

“Almost no one could resist picking up those twenty-heller pieces and they’d butt one another’s heads like rams and squabble, but I’d fly on. It made me feel good, and I’d take another fistful of coins from my pocket and toss them down behind another group, and the money would jangle to the ground and roll off in all directions…”

He seems to have a knack for success and a likeability however, attracting father-figure types. Two influential characters are the salesman who sells salami cutters and loves to lay his money out on the floor, and the head waiter who has the special talent of predicting exactly what hotel guests will want for dinner. When Ditie asks him how he manages it, he always replies, ‘because I Served the King of England’. Later Ditie, has his own honour of having served the King of Ethiopia.

The first part of the book could be mistaken for being a light hearted expose something like Hotel Babylon (dare I say it!). The characters are amusing on their odd habits and tendency for excess. I loved the scene where Ditie serves at the Ethiopian banquet and describes the lengths they go to, to create an amazing feast. There are many rude expose’s of guests, including lecherous old men, and cognac fuelled parties – but I shall leave the details for you to find out yourselves!

However there is a real turning point when he meets a young German girl after protecting her against angry Czech’s. There is a sort of innocence about why they are being nasty to her, but later as the book progresses Ditie begins to understand the cold, dark aspects of the Nazi ideal of ‘The New Europe’. Although as usual, Ditie feels it most in his nether regions! He describes with horror the cold and scientific inspection process to ensure that his sperm is worthy of joining with his German wife’s egg. The ironic outcome of all of this is that Lise (his wife) later gives birth of a son who Ditie considers to be a cretin.

I Served the King of England gives the reader a side-long perspective of the effect of the Second World War. There aren’t huge tracts of commentary, because Ditie himself is sort of apart from it , but he uses everyday moments to suggest the underlying violence, for example where he views young men and women who have been injured at the front swimming:

“The cripples whose wounds were already slightly healed would like in the water or paddle gently about. Some others had no legs at all, just stumps. They moved their arms in the water like frogs, with their heads poking out of the blue lake, and they were handsome young men again, but when they swam to the edge, they would pull themselves out with their arms and crawl up the bank like turtles…”

I thoroughly enjoyed the expose nature of the first half of the book and you can’t help liking Ditie’s character because of his exuberance and easy-come-easy-go approach. The book beautifully contrasted scenes of excess before the war and the following devastation. I did get a little bit lost in some parts, but it wasn’t long before I found another entertaining bit to keep me busy. I Served the King of Englandis definitely a good read and, something to pick up when you fancy something a bit different.

Want to read other’s (varied!) opinions of the book?

Celine Curiol’s Voice Over: Book Group 3

Voice Over - Celine CuriolYesterday was my third Book Blogger’s Book Group. It’s not actually called that and not everyone who goes along actually blogs but it’s just for my sanity to differentiate from my others! Anyone who’s interested in the group can find out more here on Savidge Reads’ blog.

So this months choice was Voice Over by Celine Curiol chosen by Armen. While I don’t think he did it on purpose, Armen chose a very apt follow up to The Bell Jar which we read in July. In reading Voice Over, I discovered another neurotic female character to rival Plaths. The book is a narrative of a young woman who lives in Paris. She works as an announcer in a train station and is in love with a man who we are not sure is interested in her but has a girlfriend ‘Ange’ that the protagonist seems to envy and idolises as an ‘angel’. The significance of her job to me in being the ‘voice over’ at the station is that she is a sort of faceless person, detatched from everyone around her. She gives instructions, always as they should be – mundane and correct – but never really has contact with other people. She is never named within the book.

She is somewhat oddly behaved, provoking bitchy comments from her colleagues and is also emotionally detached, living in her own little world with a naive attitude which leads her into a whole host of strange and often dangerous situations! The only people she comes into real contact with seem to be equally strange and even these connections are fleeting. She also has a sort of romantic sensibility which leads her to imagine events that haven’t happened yet with great clarity and dread or sometimes hopeful anticipation.

“She thinks of her own death. As if it were a cessation, the sudden interruption of a current, the annihilation of what she is. At any moment. She concentrates on the physical duration of time. Each instant could be the last, yet each instant, once over becomes a reprieve. And, one by one, the instance pass, nothing happens, or rather everything does: she doesn’t die.”

She acts out, announcing inappropriate things at dinner parties. It is hinted throughout that something bad has happened to her. You are lead to wonder, is this why she is so strange?

What really enhances the ‘oddness’ of this book is the way in which it is written. It seems as if it is the protagonists own train of thought, but is actually written in the third person. So you feel as if you are part of her thought process and yet detached at the same time. The sense that it is a train of thought is also made more acute by the fact that there are no chapter breaks so that you feel a bit as if you are hurtling from page to page, from event to event.

I wouldn’t say I liked the character – like Plath’s Esther in The Bell Jar, she is difficult to empathise with and very frustrating at times – but I found the novel very absorbing and thought provoking. I wanted to know more about her – what’s her name? – what is her own image of herself? – what is the nature of her attractiveness that she finds such odd suitors? – is she just plain crazy!!? I thought the writing was very skillful in creating the sense of who she was and making you a part of her curious world.

To sum up in two ajectives I’d say it was both stimulating and surreal!

Claire has also posted her thoughts on Voice Over over on her Paperback Reader blog as has Simon at Savidge Reads, Kimbofo liked it while Jackie at Farm Lane Books wasn’t so sure!

What other French fiction would you recommend?