Book group “rules”

Book group “rules”

About 12 months ago we welcomed a new member to our little book group. At least I thought we were welcoming, but it turns out that perhaps we weren’t quite as welcoming as I had imagined. Our new member has decided to quit, citing the need to get up incredibly early to catch the 5am train, but we all know that we could have done more to make her feel like part of the group.

It wasn’t all our fault of course. Sometimes people just don’t gel with other people and that’s ok. It’s probably really hard for a new person to join our group which has been meeting for about twenty years. We have a good understanding of what kind of books each person likes to read, and we often swap books that we think another member will like, but we don’t mind branching out into something new every now and then. It’s very boring to read the same kind of books all the time. I like to think we aren’t too narrow in our choices although we mainly read fiction.

The last book we read was non-fiction and was chosen by the new person and I found it a difficult and sombre read. I was glad I had read it, but it was an awfully dark book to read in the middle of a pandemic. It didn’t help that it was a true story. A horrifying tale of man’s inhumanity to man set on Manus Island. If you aren’t familiar with what happens on Manus Island, let’s just say that it makes me ashamed to be an Australian.

I expressed these views at our meeting. Perhaps I should have kept them to myself? Was she offended that I didn’t enjoy the book she had chosen? To be honest, it’s not a book that anyone would enjoy, but it’s an important book and I think I made this clear.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with some ideas (I hesitate to call them rules) on running your book group.

  1. If people don’t like the book you’ve recommended, don’t take it personally and don’t apologise. We once read a book that I recommended and loved, and my friend said it was “like eating cold porridge.” I thought her comment was hilarious. Some books are just not for you and that’s okay. You are allowed to love books that other people hate. It’s nice when everyone says “I loved this book” but it’s not necessarily desirable, and it’s definitely not mandatory. Some of our best discussions have occurred when half the group loved the book and the other half hated it.
  2. Try to give some space to the quietest person in the group. They usually have something brilliant to say if everyone else shuts up and gives them a chance.
  3. Communicate with the group in between meetings and don’t leave anyone off the email list or they’ll get miffed. Try to make sure that everyone “replies all”. Private messages just confuse things and leave some people in the dark about what is happening. Feelings can be hurt.
  4. Don’t try to keep the conversation completely on the book. Tangents are ok and sometimes very interesting. We’ve had some awesome discussions about the themes of books (motherhood, grief and loss, sexuality) and if someone had insisted that we “must go back to talking about the book” then these discussions would never have happened.
  5. Be forgiving if people forget what the book is or what date the meeting is. If you’ve taken on the role of unofficial secretary, send out a reminder. People are busy and have a lot going on in their lives. (This is actually a note to self. I get annoyed when people forget when book group is, but my life is relatively uneventful. Also, I put it in my calendar!!)
  6. Try to find ways to diversify your reading. There are some fantastic books out there that aren’t on the best seller list. Try reading some translated books, some classics, and some genres you don’t usually read. Also try graphic novels, YA fiction, poetry and memoir. You might be just on the verge of a great new discovery. Here’s a great blog if you are interested in hearing from different voices.
  7. Check that the library has at least two copies of the book before you recommend it. Not everyone has the financial means to buy new books.
  8. Also, it’s worth checking out what kind of book boxes your local library can provide. They often have multiple copies of books just waiting to be borrowed by book groups.
  9. Try to have some kind of system for choosing the next book. Our group usually has a list of books we think we’d like to read in the coming year but we still spend ages trying to decide what to read next, so this year we are trying a rotation method where each person takes a turn to choose the book. I’m not sure whether this is working for everyone, but it does cut down the time trawling through possible reads and it means everyone gets a chance to choose at least one book they like.
  10. Just to reiterate point one (and because a list of 10 points is tidier than nine) please remember that what you have in common is curiosity and a love of reading and that if no-one likes the book you chose, it’s okay. After all, it’s not as if you wrote it.

Do you have any suggestions to add?

What are you consuming?

What are you consuming?

A young girl is found dead in the forest and the killer is at large.

I often wonder why we are attracted to this scenario when it’s such cliché. It seems that in nearly every new thriller another girl is found dead in the forest. How many forests are there in the world? And why is it always (or mostly), a young girl who’s been murdered? And more importantly, why do we continue to watch these shows and read these books when the world seems to be falling down around our ears. How has it become normal to watch the re-enactment of a murder as a way of winding down after a hard day at work, or escaping from the realities of the news?

I’m not judging you. I’m exactly the same. I’m looking out for that great new show or book that will take me away from a world where disasters are much too real and terrible things are happening. I recently watched an entire series on SBS in just a few days which I know isn’t anything unusual, people binge watch all the time, but it’s unusual for me.

Perhaps fictional murders are easier to deal with than real life. No doubt there’s a lot of psychology here (and a few PhDs in the making), but for my money I think that the fact that we know it isn’t real is somehow weirdly comforting. The mystery element of working out “who done it” engages our brain and takes us away from our everyday problems.

To offset my viewing choices, I’ve tried to expand my mind with some non-fiction titles during my time at home, but I’m still drawn to murder mysteries as they are just so consumable. It’s so easy to just keep reading, sometimes late into the night. The room painting project is suffering and so is the writing.

I wonder if you are drawn to murder mysteries in these strange times or whether you are after a good comfort read? I’m trying to alternate between books that inspire, educate or inform, and just pure escapism. I can churn through light fiction in a couple of days, but the more serious stuff seems to take weeks to read, even though it’s good for my mind and my soul.

I try not to feel guilty about reading light fiction, in fact I don’t know why I even think I SHOULD feel guilty.

There are enough things to worry about without thinking that your reading isn’t up to scratch.

After all, who’s judging? I don’t worry about what other people think but sometimes I get to the end of a book and feel like I’ve been eating fairy floss. I haven’t learnt anything, I haven’t filled up my brain with any goodness, I’ve just distracted myself for a few hours. I suppose there are worse vices but I’m conscious that my reading and viewing choices are a bit unsatisfying. A bit like eating too much ice-cream, enjoyable at the time but not very nutritious.

For me, the best solution is to find books that are compelling, well-written, but not too demanding. I’m quite keen on endings that are uplifting. They don’t have to have a happy ending, all tied up in a bow, but I do like to finish a book feeling that things will work out eventually.

Do you have any suggestions that fit those criteria? I already have a massively long TBR, but one can never have too many books to read.

The writer’s contract

The writer’s contract

I’ve just finished reading a book with a maddening ending. It was a well-constructed mystery with quite a complicated storyline full of lots of twist and turns and I was really enjoying it until I came to the end and found that ALL the clues were essentially red herrings and that the truth was something entirely different.

I think that when you read a mystery you are entering into a kind of contract with the writer. They feed you clues (a few red herrings are ok) and you try to work out who the baddies are and why they committed the crime.

At the end of this book I felt like I’d been cheated. No-one was really who you thought they were, and everyone was lying except for the lead character who’d really just been duped by everyone else. I wouldn’t have guessed the ending in a million years (which is ok, I’m not a detective) but I like to be able to look back through the story and see that the clues were all there if you looked hard enough.

I won’t name the book as it got rave reviews and I admire and respect anyone who can actually write a whole book, but all the same, it was disappointing. I might read another book by the same author as I liked her style and the lead was pretty quirky and interesting. It could have just been me that missed the clues, but I really don’t think so…

By contrast, The Wife and the Widow by Christian White has a really satisfying ending which you don’t see coming (and I won’t give it away) but when you look back you can see that it all makes sense. I read a review that said you could see the ending a mile off, but me, I didn’t see it at all.

This got me wondering where the term “red herring” actually comes from. According to this article, red herrings (being very smelly) were commonly used to train animals (horses or dogs) to follow a scent, but the term was first used in a literary sense by the British journalist William Cobbett in an article about the press allowing itself to be misled by false information. I guess that would be called “false news” these days.

I don’t like too many red herrings in books unless they are explained later. It’s too easy to throw in random clues that have nothing to do with the storyline. I especially hate it when people are described as ‘suspicious’ and turn out to be perfectly normal. Why tell us that someone is suspicious if they aren’t? It’s breaking the writer’s contract. I expect the author to tell me the truth and keep their part of the bargain, otherwise I just get cross.

What about you? Is there anything that drives you crazy?

We Are Not Ourselves – book review

We Are Not Ourselves – book review

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to focus long enough to read an entire book.

It’s incredibly hard to concentrate with so much going on in the world and although escaping into a book seems like an easy thing to do, in reality you need to choose exactly the right book in order to be transported into that parallel universe that a good book can provide.

I’ve just finished reading “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas. I put off reading the last chapter because I didn’t want it to end, but I was also a little bit nervous in case it just trailed off. Some novels do that, it’s as though they don’t quite know how to finish. I don’t like endings to be too tidy and twee, but I do like books that give you some sense of things being put right with the world.

It’s a lengthy book (600+ pages) about a marriage between two very different people. Eileen comes from Irish immigrant stock; Ed is a college professor with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not just about navigating his illness, it’s about all the ways that relationships evolve over time. It’s about love, death, and birth, and finding compassion for yourself and others. The blurb on the back says that it took the author ten years to write and it’s easy to see the time and effort that went into crafting this novel.

I have a soft spot for books of this kind. You’ll find them frequently in my lists of favourite books and I think this is because I like to know what happens to people as they grow and change. I like to see how people mellow as they age, and how they start to think about things differently. I’m also very partial to books that remind you about what really matters.

At the end of the book, the son reads a letter from his father which says…

When the world is full of giants who dwarf you, when it feels like a struggle just to keep your head up, I want you to remember that there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing.

Matthew Thomas

Being a good person has value. Good reminder.

What to read if you're stuck at home

What to read if you're stuck at home

I’m a person of simple tastes – I just need coffee in the morning, a glass of Rose at sundown, and a nice big pile of books to read and I’m pretty happy. Some chats with friends and family and a bit of light gardening are welcome additions.

But I did have a moment of panic yesterday morning when I got a notice from the library to say that the books I’d reserved were available to be picked up. Should I make an emergency dash to the library in case they decided to close their doors? I briefly considered this, but then decided to take my chances on picking them up on Monday. Also I have a massive pile of books next to the bed so I’m really not going to run out in the next six months. And there’s always digital books. The library has advised that they will be increasing the number of digital books to better serve the needs of the community which is great news.

We did an emergency dash to Aldi yesterday to buy some fresh ginger (??), some curry powder and some of the aforementioned Rose. We saw people coming out with TP and snagged the last four-pack so we were well-pleased with ourselves.

But back to the topic at hand. What should we be reading in this surreal situation? I think there are three options.

Get into the groove with some dystopian fiction.

If you’re up for reading dystopian books, the number one pick for me would be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s about a swine flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population and a group of nomadic actors and musicians who survive and band tother to travel the countryside bringing tiny glimmers of hope and culture to the remaining people. Despite the gloomy storyline, this is actually quite an uplifting book in many ways. It’s been recently been turned into a TV series, so look out for it on your screens. But honestly, I think the writing is beautiful so I would try to read it first.

Another couple of books that come to mind are quite old, but worth seeking out if you haven’t read them. I can recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 (before I was born) but still resonates today. It’s well worth the effort of hunting it down. It should be in your library.

Alternatively, you could try some escapist thrillers.

I’ve got a penchant for Stella Rimington books. She writes books about spies (the type of stories that get made into TV series like Spooks). They are definitely page-turners and not particularly memorable (sorry Stella) but quite well written and easy to consume. Other favourites are police procedurals. Try Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent which is also one of my all time favourite movies.

I recently read Anne Cleve’s new book called The Long Call which I enjoyed very much and my son has offered to lend me Dervla McTiernan’s new book (The Good Turn) which I’m excited about. If you are planning the read this, I would definitely go back to the beginning of the series and read The Ruin first. The books can be read out of order, but I prefer to read them in order of publication.

Lastly, you could read something uplifting!

One of the books that’s waiting for me at the library is The Joy of High Places by Patti Miller. This has been recommended by one of my sisters (both are avid readers) so I’m looking forward to diving into this one. Patti is an excellent writer and teaches memoir writing courses, so this one promises to be a good read.

Also on my TBR (to be read) list is a new book by Julia Baird, Australian journalist and broadcaster, called Phosphorescence. It’s comes out tomorrow, March 23 and is described as…

A beautiful, intimate and inspiring investigation into how we can find and nurture within ourselves that essential quality of internal happiness – the ‘light within’ that Julia Baird calls ‘phosphorescence’ – which will sustain us even through the darkest times.  

Review from the ‘Readings’ website

It might be a good choice for the current situation.

Lastly, I just want to say that I hope you are all doing ok. I’m deeply aware that not all of you are seeing this crises as an opportunity to read more books. Many of you will be facing an uncertain future in terms of employment and even health outcomes so if that describes your situation, my heart goes out to you. I hope you keep well and keep your cool. I genuinely think that books can bring comfort and maybe just a few hours of distraction when things are getting too much.

If you have books you’d like to recommend, or just want to touch base, do feel free to send me a message via my contact page. I would love to hear from you and will definitely respond.

Love

Marg XXX

My reading year

My reading year

It’s my favourite time of the year. It’s not the Christmas festivities that thrill me although I do love catching up with family and friends and of course I love eating left-over Christmas pudding with lots of custard AND ice-cream.

No, what I really hang out for is reading about people’s favourite books. I love finding out what everyone else has been reading – there’s always a chance that there’s a little gem that I’ve missed.

A lot of people think that I read all the time but that’s not true. Like most people, I’ve got other responsibilities but to be honest, reading is probably my favourite activity.

This year I read about 28 books, mostly fiction and mainly written by women. I think this is more than last year but perhaps I just kept better records this year. So here are my top picks for 2019.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I was a bit reluctant to read this book because the review said that it was a reworking of the play Antigone by Sophocles. Not having a classical education, I had no idea what this meant so I thought it might be too sophisticated for me. Apparently the play is about a teenage girl who is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land and religious laws but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t matter one whit if you aren’t familiar with the storyline, it’s a great book. Lots to think about and beautifully written. It’s written by a Pakistani writer and covers many themes around family, loyalty and love.

Ask again, yes by Mary Beth Keane.

This book gets my award for the weirdest title. It’s very hard to recommend a book with a weird title, don’t you think? Having said that, this was a great multi-generational read about love, redemption and messy families. If you like Celeste Ng you will probably enjoy this book which is set in New York. This review describes it as a gripping and compassionate family drama and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

The Children's House by Alice Nelson
The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House was recommended to me by one my sisters. Both are keen readers and a great source of reading recommendations. Lots of people in my family read a lot, so I’m lucky there. It’s written by an Australian author and tells the story of a woman in New York who befriends a refugee with a small child. It’s a beautifully written book that would be a great choice for book groups. Lots of themes around belonging, motherhood and what it means to be part of a community.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

I finished reading this one about 10 minutes ago. Couldn’t put it down, so it’s just as well I’m on holiday! Well plotted, fast-moving and an all round great read. Really enjoyed the descriptions of Devon and can’t wait for the next book in the series. This is a new series for Ann Cleeves, famous for the Shetland and Vera books (which I haven’t actually read although I’ve watched and enjoyed both of these as TV shows). She introduces a new detective called Matthew Venn who is both slightly troubled but principled in the time-worn tradition.

If you’re after something for a holiday or a plane trip and you enjoy mysteries, I really don’t think you can go past this one. It’s a satisfying read.

So there’s my round up of top picks for the year. I also enjoyed the much lauded “Where the Crawdad Sings” which didn’t disappoint.

I would love to know what you read during the year and what you would recommend? Do share…

The perfect book

The perfect book

I’m lucky enough to be going to on trip to New York with my daughter in a week’s time and it goes without saying that I can’t wait. The list of things to see and do is already quite long and new things get added every day.

Any trip away requires planning, although in my case it’s not really what to wear that takes up most of my attention, but rather what book to take on the plane. The decisions about what clothes to take are relatively easy as I don’t really have that many clothes, but the decision about what book to take is more difficult because there are just so many choices.

It’s important to get your book choices just right when you are flying long distances.

I remember going on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago. It’s only a three and a half hour flight from Sydney but it seemed endless because I’d chosen the wrong book. I really hated the book I’d taken and spent the whole trip trying to read Harry Potter over the shoulder of the woman sitting next to me. I’m sure she thought I was a bit weird.

I know you are probably thinking that I should just take a whole bunch of different books on my iPad but sometimes your eyes get quite irritated on a long flight and I find an actual books to be more soothing.

This leads me to the first thing on the list of plane reading requirements (after being interesting and engaging) which is that that the print can’t be tiny. I can no longer read really tiny print at the best of times, and certainly not when I’ve been awake for more than 20 hours.

Secondly, the book needs to be not too heavy both in terms of storyline and physical weight. No gut-wrenching memoirs for me thank you. But on the other hand I don’t like reading anything dry (no biographies) and I don’t really reading like out and out rubbish, but I’m sure there is a sweet spot of books that are page turners but also well written. I quite like hopeful books and I like psychological thrillers but I’m not a fan of too many gruesome details.

A couple of books on my list of possibilities are Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. This book sounds interesting, if a little confronting, so perhaps not the thing for a long plane trip. My sister has also recommended The Seal Woman’s Gift which sounds interesting and extraordinary. If it doesn’t make it on the plane, it’s definitely on my TBR.

Some other books on the list are How to be Happy by Eva Woods and Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson, which sounds pretty thrilling.

If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them. If they don’t make it onto the plane, I’ll definitely check them out so please share your favourite recent reads.

Good writing

Good writing

I’ve been a member of the same book group for more than twenty years. We’re a small group of women who enjoy reading and we have quite different tastes which is a good thing.

I often tell people that although we like very different kinds of books, we all appreciate good writing. But recently someone asked me what I mean when I say that something is ‘well written’.  Isn’t this purely subjective? A matter of opinion?

Well, yes and no.

A book can be well written, but boring. It can be well written, but too slow or the characters can be really unlikeable. (See my previous post for my thoughts on unlikeable characters).

Here’s a few things that I think contribute to good writing.

Well crafted sentences are always appreciated. I like it when I don’t have to read a sentence more than once to figure out what it means. If I do read a sentence twice, it’s usually because I’ve enjoyed it so much that I want to read it again.

I like writing that is honest but graceful. I like lyrical writing, but I dislike long descriptive passages and tend to skip over them if they are too long. I like the story to move along at a fairly brisk pace.

I like the characters to be complex and multi-dimensional (just like in real life). It’s great when characters have a range of emotions, or mixed feelings. I like to understand their motivations, their fears, their secret desires.

A couple of years ago my book group read an excellent book by Stephanie Bishop, a West Australian author called “The Other Side of the World”.  Set in England, Australia and India in the early 1960s, it was described by the New York times Book Review as an exquisite meditation on motherhood, marriage, and the meaning of home. For me, this is the kind of book that encapsulates what I like best in books. Strong themes, strong characters and lots of thought provoking questions that we couldn’t really answer in our book group, but we enjoyed discussing.

And yes, we thought it was well-written, whatever that means.

My best reads in 2018

person holding book from shelf
Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I love this time of the year. Not only do I get to have a holiday, but I also get to read all of the “best books of 2018” posts to see what great books I might have missed. I love to read what the various book sellers,  reviewers  and other bloggers have chosen as their favourites for the year and what they think will be worth reading in the coming year. As a regular library goer I like to make a note of the most anticipated books and then wait until they hit the library shelves. (Call me a cheapskate, but it works for me).

Last year I mentioned that I had only read a couple of dozen books when other readers seemed to have read 80+, so this year I decided to keep a list. There are about 24 books on the list again this year, which equates to two per month. The list doesn’t include books I abandoned, either because they were boring or because the main character was totally unlikeable. I like my protagonists to be flawed but generally decent people, otherwise I tend not to care what happens to them.

Top picks for 2018 (all with flawed characters)

Behold the dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This book is about two Cameroonian migrants, Jenda and Neni,  who are trying to live the American Dream. Whilst waiting for the results of their application for asylum, Jenda gets a job as a driver for a Wall St banker (Clarke), while his wife Neni works as domestic for Clarke’s wife. Their lives are compared, but neither family is painted as perfect. Set in 2008, just prior to the Lehmann Bros debacle, this is a complex book about money, privilege and happiness. Highly recommended. If I had a star system, this would get lots of stars!

Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng. I loved this book about a dysfunctional family living in Shaker Heights, Ohio. This is a book about motherhood, secrets, art and identity and caused a lot of discussion at my book group. What I especially liked about this book was that each of the characters had their own view of the world and their own reasons for taking the actions that they did. It’s a very even-handed book, you could really understand where everyone was coming from.

Still life with bread crumbs by Anna Quindlen. This is a highly enjoyable read, reminiscent of an upmarket Elizabeth Berg novel. This review describes this book as “comfort food” and I think that’s fair comment. It’s an easy read about a middle-aged photographer trying to re-invent herself after a downturn in her economic situation.

This is how it always is by Laurie Frankel was the book on everyone’s “must read” list this time last year. It’s about a family who’s little boy Claude decides that he wants to be a girl. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this book, as I thought it might be too confronting, but it’s an excellent read. The book is about a regular family facing a difficult situation. I especially liked the fact that they make mistakes (just like in real life) but they essentially love their child and just want him/her to be happy.

These are my favourites. What was your best read in 2018?

Don’t judge me

Don’t judge me

Do you ever worry about people judging you because of your reading choices? I’m ashamed to say I do.

Last week I was in the middle of a pretty intense workshop when we decided to take a short lunch break. The workshop facilitator wanted to pop out and get a coffee so I thought I’d take the chance to get a bit of fresh air and pick up some books from the library. I’d reserved them during the holidays but forgotten what they were, so when I arrived I was a bit surprised to find that they were definitely holiday reads (very light thrillers) and I wondered briefly if I should take them back to my desk and chuck them in a drawer or take them back into the workshop and have the inevitable conversation which starts with “so what are you reading?”.

I decided to take them with me but somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself mumbling about this not being indicative of my usual reading fare (as if anyone cares). The facilitator, lovely woman that she is, said kindly, “I’m not judging you” but this made me wonder how much we judge people by their reading choices and more importantly how much we judge ourselves.

I never try to make people think that I’m a literary kind of person, but I do read a lot and people often ask me what I’m reading. At any one time that could range from thrillers to literary fiction to memoirs to self-help books. I read most genres except perhaps horror and fantasy books. I’m a pretty fussy reader unless I’m stuck in an airport in which case I’ll probably read anything, or if it’s the holidays and then I’m allowed to read whatever I like. It’s part of the holiday splurge and something I rather enjoy. Good food, lots of nice wine and some unchallenging books. Lovely!

I’ll get back to something more nourishing soon.