The Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

This is the book selected as the opening book for my science fiction book group, so I’ve had it on my tbr pile and known it needs reading soon for the last month.

Once I was into it I really enjoyed it and read it in a single day over Christmas. Definitely the sort of book that is difficult to put down.

I did however pick it up, read the first few pages then give up a few times. It took a while to “grab” me as a concept, or to even understand how this counted as science fiction.

Unfortunately it’s near-impossible to discuss without some degree of spoiler as it is deliberately set up such that very little of the concept of the books is known at the start. Instead we are given a view of the world through Melanie, a girl who then discovers more about the world and her own place in it.The Girl With All The Gifts

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Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is an old man, living in a residential home and the circus has just come to town. This triggers memories of the days when he accidentally jumped aboard a circus train in the middle of the Great Depression.

The level of violence in this book was shocking, along with the gritty characters who were just struggling. The contrast between the glitter of the ring and the day-to-day struggle of a circus operating outside the low, travelling between towns on a long train with animals packed into cars and men who the circus can no longer keep being redlighted.

Then there is a the care home life of Jacob, who is worried about losing his memory and feels institutionalised by a home which only ever serves soft food in spite of the fact that he still has his teeth. He misses his dead wife and his many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and has a few like-minded souls and one nurse who realises he is still human.

Love how the two timelines tie together and the misdirection in the prologue.

Also this is a success for the Libraries West book reservation system. Ordered it from home (online) and it appeared at my village library within the week for a very reasonable fee. Good system and supporting the community library.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

This was a book group book, although I picked it up from the library without remembering so because it looked so intriguing.

Set in 1946 it deals with the aftermath of the Second World War, both in London and on Guernsey, discussing the occupation of the Channel Islands and what this meant for the residents of these islands. More than a war story, it is a tale of love between an author struggling for inspiration and Guernsey. The other key people are members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, formed to save the founding members from arrest, but becoming a place of ideas and resistance.

The German occupation were surprisingly human for most of the book, with most of the suffering being imposed from outside the islands and the occupation not being much better off than the occupied. This gives an impression of a very forgiving and friendly community, with even those who cause so much suffering being given a chance to be human.

I liked the format of using a series of letters to tell a story, although there were too many “S” characters and I did have to reread sections due to getting confused as to who was writing to whom. It gave most characters a chance to “talk” to the reader directly. This did mean it was necessary to consider the perspective of the letter writer, with not all letters being written from an honest perspective or by an individual with possession of all the facts, but the story instead being woven and built as this is gained.

Tell Me the Truth About Love – W. H. Auden

“Will it alter my life altogether?
   O tell me the truth about love.”

This short collection of poems explores how we experience love througout our lives, from wondering what love is and what impact it will have as a small child, through first loves, life-long partnerships and to death.

We choose this as a book group read as we are trying to read a variety of genres, and it sparked an interesting discussion on what makes poetry (rhythm and/or rhyme?) and what the “truth about love” is.

Personally I love Auden’s style of poetry, with a gentle rhythm and rhyme which makes it very lyrical in style. Some of these poems have a fairly depressing message, but they are looking for a truth, and there is a definite feel of the start of WW2 in the later poems. One stanza also gave a feel of the feeling towards bankers in the aftermath of the great depression:

“But the poor fat old banker in the sun-parlour car
Has no one to love him except his cigar.”

I also listened to many of these poems on you tube, getting a feel for the rhythm and feeling that others put into reading the poem, and letting me experience the poem differently.

The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit is a classic fantasy novel written by Tolkien, which is nominally at least a children’s book. Much simpler than its sequel The Lord of The Rings, it is an introductory novel to Middle Earth, in which the home-loving Bilbo Baggins (a Hobbit) joins an adventure to take revenge on a dragon.

Possibly it’s because this book is aimed at children that I find the characters lacking and the plot plodding tediously where the world-building and detail is fantastic. I do remember struggling with it aged 7 however!

The lack of anything more dramatic than mild peril (certificate 12) makes for a dull book, and the miraculous escapes seem ridiculous after a while. I think this would be an acceptable book if there was less pressure to love it, but I always think its overrated.

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones opens with a brutal rape/murder, which makes the whole book look less appealing. But from this it opens out into a book of love, growing up and healing from unbearable horror.

Susie Salmon (like the fish) is trapped in heaven, which is her own perfect world except for the fact that she can no longer speak to her family and friends who are mourning her on earth. Even worse her murderer still walks the streets of her previous life and police investigations just wash over him. So she watches her younger sister begin to fall in love, her mother remember who she is and her first crush grow up and move on.

Throughout this there is a level of tenderness towards the characters from Susie who is narrating, even as they react to their grief though anger and turning away from each other. Without the normal worldly troubles she can only find anger for her murderer, and frustration when those she knew get close to finding a clue which could solve the mystery. This is not a detective story however, only that the brutally murdered and those traumatised by the murder want peace, there is no great investigation in which clues are uncovered step by step.

Sometimes I did wish for a more mature narrator who wasn’t still amazed by her first kiss, but the consistency of Susie’s innocence in spite of her violent rape in her last hours gives hope of healing for her and then for her family as they move on in life.

Sebold pains a beautiful afterlife in which the newcomers are allowed to adjust with a transition period that is just a sealed perfect world for them before allowing them to explore more fundamental truths and find those who have watched them from heaven.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

No-one in our book group could work out why The Slap had received good reviews and awards. It was generally agreed to be pointless, crude and selfish, and that if this really reflects modern life then there is not much good in this type of life.

The book supposedly revolves around a “shocking” incident of a man hitting a child, however the circumstances of this slap were such that it was impossible to feel sympathy for the child or his hysterical mother. These caricatures of modern middle class individuals were hard to feel sympathy for, even when their lives were hard, and they all seemed to have purely selfish motivations.

The book is then twice as long as it needed to be, with a strange focus on some characters who are quite unnecessary for the rest of the book, and events which seemed detached from the rest of the story. These seemed to lead into active plot points then stop suddenly, as though the author had done a poor job of editing the novel down.

The style of using a series of first-person narrators was reminiscent of Jodi Picoult’s style, but without bringing us back to the same characters later in the book is was hard to gauge whether any development had taken place, or whether they were merely being viewed through different sets of eyes.

I wouldn’t bother to reread this, and advise against buying it.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns was a book group book, which I was not so sure about reading as I had found The Kite Runner to be too involving a read a couple of years ago. It is just as devastating a read, looking at two women’s lives as regimes change in Afghanistan, and how they build relationships though the horror.

The book is very well written drawing me well into Afghanistan, and the lives of the two women. There are numerous elegant pieces of imagery, where the scene described feels completely real, and it is hard to remember that English is Hosseini’s third language as he uses it so beautifully.

The book shows both the way people can inflict cruelty and hardship on each other, along with how the strongest bonds of love can act between those undergoing hardship. I did appreciate how all hardship was inflicted on the characters by each other and those in wider society, rather than unfortunate chance. This made the suffering much worse, as it reflected the worst in human nature.

Whilst the story in the book is fictional, the legal institutions and social attitudes are real, and it illustrates life under the Taliban. Reading this I was glad to live in the West, where women have the right to vote, freedom of expression and freedom of movement. But more than these freedoms, what is clearly missing from the women’s lives is the protection of the state from abuse, and the right to not be treated as a man’s property. Hosseini has effectively drawn attention to the damage that invading countries have inflected on the fabric of Afghan society, destabilising it over and over again.