Bonjour, book fans! Joining me for A Blogging Good Read this month are Laura from This Rambling Corner and Katie from What Katie Wrote Next. It's always so nice to have new faces taking part in BGR. If anyone is interested in signing up for an edition later in the year (or coming back for another go), please let me know. I'm always on the hunt for more willing victims. Muahaha!
Ahem. Onto the books.
Our first read was Laura's choice, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck:
I first read Of Mice and Men when I was at school and I loved it straight away, so when Alex told me to pick my favourite book this was my first (and only) thought. I haven't actually read this book since I studied it at school, so my participation in a Blogging Good Read seemed like the perfect opportunity to re-read it (after 12 years!) and see if it was still my favourite book. The book follows George Milton and Lennie Small, two itinerant ranch workers as they travel around California together to find work during The Great Depression. The fact that George and Lennie travel together goes against the norm of travelling ranch workers. But these two men have known each other for years and George acts as a father figure to Lennie who is big and strong, but also simple. George and Lennie share the dream of one day owning a small farm and living off 'the fat of the land'. George and Lennie arrive at a new farm and we are introduced to the ranch owner; The Boss, his son Curly and Curly's wife as well as a group of the ranch workers; Crooks, the black stable hand, Candy, the ageing handyman and Slim, the most respected worker on the ranch.
Even though it's only a short book Steinbeck weaves a story of dreams, loneliness and companionship so well. The actual book only takes place over one weekend, but so much happens in that time, and it's a stark reminder of just how quickly dreams can be destroyed. The book opens with George and Lennie stopping to make camp the night before they arrive at a new ranch. As they set up camp we quickly understand the protector role that George plays to Lennie, who is like a small child, unable to remember things very well or to see the danger in his actions. In fact when George shares the story of their ranch dreams, Lennie shows a strong resemblance to a child having a story read to him. He hangs on every word and is quick to point out the parts that George forgets. I think this is my favourite part in the book, it shows the characters so well and I can almost imagine them living out their dream as they speak. Also from this point, I couldn't help but wish and hope that they would make it to that little plot of land. But at the same time and as the reality of the dream comes closer throughout the book I was waiting on tenterhooks knowing that something was going to go wrong, but being unable to stop it, or to stop reading. It was like waiting for a car crash to happen, I just couldn't look away. I really wanted to reach into the book and just bat away Curly and Curly's wife, to protect Lennie and with him, George and Candy and their entwined dream. I thought it was interesting how Steinbeck mirrored the human story with an animal story throughout the book, like with the death of the puppy and Curly's wife or Candy's dog and eventually Lennie. He's actually telling you what really happens at a much earlier point in the story.
So this book is still as heartbreaking as I remember. There's something so cruel about meeting these characters, hearing their dreams and then watching it all end so badly. And yet I still can't help but love it, because of the great characters, their belief in their dreams and the epic heartbreak that ends it all.
What did Katie think?
I thought I would start with Of Mice and Men, mainly because this was a book I was re-reading. I remembered having studied it at school and having a clear recollection of the plot. In all honesty, I really struggled to enjoy it, and I think the fact that this was the second time around had a lot to do with that. I read the book quickly, knowing from the outset that there was a tragic ending, and I think I found the sense of foreboding disheartening.
Whilst I don’t like books that are too saccharine, there isn’t too much to feel positive about in this plot, and the book being so brief makes it somehow feel rawer; a short, sharp, blow that leaves a sensation of sadness. It isn’t a reflection on the quality of the writing, Steinbeck tells the story brilliantly and the two lead characters are well-drawn and believable (although I do think there is a fascinating subplot of the dispossessed, drifting population of farmhands that could have stood for much more exploration). I suppose it shows how much George and Lennie, and their co-dependent relationship, engages the reader, that I almost wanted to stop reading rather than reach the point where it falls apart.
I also realised that there is a current Broadway production, and I could see the story translating brilliantly to theatre. I was glad to have the opportunity to revisit the book, and can still see why it is a classic. I would recommend it for a first time read, and it has made me want to read more Steinbeck in the future.
Unlike the other two, I've never read this before. I have seen a theatrical production of it (which was very good, despite being in a tiny local theatre) but while that can leave you with a recollection of the plot, it never quite comes close to the experience of reading the text. Speaking of the plot, Laura and Katie have both summarised it rather beautifully so I won't repeat what they've already told you. What I will say is that I'm very glad I didn't study this book at school because that level of over-analysis seems to me like a sure-fire way to suck all the joy out of a text. I came to this book expecting it to be good - well, it's a modern classic, isn't it? - and I wasn't at all disappointed. It's heartbreaking and doomed to tragedy but it's beautiful. Steinbeck doesn't waste a word.
My choice was A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian:
You all know I love books set during the war, don't you? We've reviewed Goodnight Mister Tom (by the same author) in a previous edition of BGR and I've been meaning to choose this book for a long time. It tells the story of Rose and her sister Diana who decamp to the south coast during the summer of 1943 and set up home in an isolated little cottage. Rose is the clever, plain one of the family and is stuggling to cope with the death of her father and the weight of familial expectations for her to pass her School Certificate and go to university when all it turns out that she really wants to do is write. The story of Mad Hilda, the previous owner of the cottage, is unfolded throughout the book and it's also liberally sprinkled with interesting local characters like mysterious Alec who owns the village bookshop. It's quite a small, self-contained story that runs over the course of a short summer but it packs an emotional wallop.
I distinctly remember being quite shocked by this book when I read it first. My ten year old self was rather startled by the fact that the characters Had Sex and got pregnant outside wedlock and weren't even guilty about it! Ah, the innocence of youth... I'm probably more impressed by this when I re-read it as an adult though. Magorian has an incredibly deft touch when it comes to portraying very serious issues and although I liked reading about Mad Hilda and Alec's PTSD when I was younger, I truly appreciate them on a different level now.
If I have one criticism of this book it's that it's a little short and there are some plot points that I'd like to be explored further. Alec fascinates me but we don't hear as much about him as I'd like. Imagine my excitement when I read this wonderful interview with the author and discovered it was hacked for publication over here. The US version (published as Not A Swan) is uncut and has a THIRD SISTER (and hopefully extra Alec). I know what I'll be buying next!
What did Laura think of it?
When I first saw this book on the list I have to admit I wasn't that excited as I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to reading books set during any war. It's a topic that I find so heartbreaking that I tend to shy away from it. Luckily for me A Little Love Song explores the lives of people left at home during the war, rather that dealing with those actually fighting on the war front. Not that it isn't still heartbreaking but it definitely made it an easier read for me. From the start I found myself quickly drawn into the story and invested fully into the lives of the characters. I like that Magorian writes fully fleshed out characters. Characters that you can relate too and understand the actions of, even if you don't always agree with them. Too often I find myself reading as characters act in ways that don't make sense, so I'm pleased that this isn't the case here. Yes, I didn't like some of the things that Derry or Rose, or Diana did, but I did understand them and I could see why each character would behave in such a way. Magorian also tackles some interesting and tough tactics; post traumatic stress, pregnancy outside of marriage and mental health are all written about in a sensitive way, that makes the reader think. My only slight criticism is that I would have liked to have learned more about Alec and his life, I know we heard bits and pieces but it just wasn't enough for me.
Overall I did enjoyed this book more than I expected and would recommend it. It also made me wish I had discovered this book years ago, as I'm sure it would have been a firm favourite when I was younger...and not just because there was a mysterious man with a bookshop.
Did Katie enjoy it?
I didn’t know what to make of the book when it arrived with its faded, rather twee cover; however it was a fun piece of escapism. I liked the female protagonist, and Mad Hilda, I hadn’t expected there to be much in the way of independent, self-reliant women, particularly from the first few pages. I guessed this would be a happily ever after ending, but there was enough in the way of a plot to keep me reading, and I curled up with this and finished it in a few hours.
I enjoyed the fact that it touched on some darker subjects in quite a gentle way, and I found all of the characters well-written. I suppose my only criticism would be that everything wrapped up so neatly at the end it felt a little too contrived for a book that had managed not to stray (too much) into over-sentimentality. Having said that, I did find myself flicking the back pages for an epilogue, wondering what had happened to the characters post-war, so it obviously must have left me wanting more!
This is the kind of book I would never have picked up myself, and whilst as a plot it wasn’t anything ground-breaking, it was interesting and enjoyable. I can see myself going back to this again in a few years’ time when I want a quick read. Most importantly, I was genuinely intrigued to see what would happen with the characters and felt it provided a brilliant snapshot of an element of wartime Britain.
Katie's selection was The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce:
It tells the story of Harold, recently retired, living at home with his wife. At the start of the book Harold receives a letter, and after leaving the house to post a reply, he suddenly finds himself walking the length of the country, unprepared but determined. The book then follows Harold’s journey to his newly-discovered destination, the people he meets along the way, and also how Maureen, Harold’s wife is taken on the journey with him, from behind her net curtains at home.
As I alluded to on my blog, I knew nothing about this book before I picked it off the book shelf, but I absolutely adored it. I thought the plot was entirely original, but despite the bizarre situation Harold found himself in, completely believable. The characters throughout felt entirely real and I urged Harold on his journey, desperate to reach his destination with him. It was a life-affirming read, without being overly positive; Harold’s journey is by no means uneventful. As a character Harold is completely likeable, yet the hints of a darker side in the well thought out subplots kept me guessing throughout.
I loved this book, and am almost struggling to write this because I don’t feel like I can do it justice (and I also worry how I will feel if other people don’t love it as much as I do!). I found it a superb concept, but it would have been easy for it to become boring, or too simplistic in its plot. Instead the journey of Harold, and all of those around him, really drew me in, and I can’t wait to read it again. In parts it is almost microscopic in its detail, whilst at other times it focuses on the grand landscapes, and vast reality of the journey Harold takes. It seems to shift perspectives, and moods, without ever losing quality or clarity, and I would (and do) heartily recommend this to anyone.
Shame on me for going into this book expecting it to be rubbish. SHAME. In my defence, it's associated with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared in my mind and I did not enjoy that book at all. I was expecting this to be very similar. In the sense that it's about an older man who escapes his life and goes on a journey, I suppose it is. But wow, this book is infinitely better than that one.
It was a pleasant read to start off with. Kinda jaunty, in fact. I got through the first two thirds in a jiffy, enjoying Harold's progress up the country and playing a merry game of "I've been there!". It got subtly darker towards the end though and parts of it unexpectedly choked me up. Not so much the big plot point between Harold and Maureen (which I shan't spoil) as I slightly anticipated that, but it was the insidious annexation of Harold's quest and his gradual decline that really saddened me. I really did enjoy this overall and probably all the more so for being taken by surprise by it.
Did Laura agree with us?
I've had this on my 'to be read' list for quite some time, so it was with excitement that I picked this book up. But then I started reading it and was feeling very blah about it. I have to admit that if I hadn't been reading it for Blogging Good Read then I probably would have put this book down and moved on. Luckily I persevered and at 40% I suddenly got this book. It just made sense and I was promptly hooked and couldn't read it fast enough. I found myself completely intrigued about the relationship between Harold and Maureen and their son, as well as with Harold's relationship to Queenie. Harold's struggle to understand his life as he walks is quite beautiful and also heartbreaking at the same time. I did find myself racing towards the end of this book just to see how everything worked out; Would Harold make it to Queenie? What would their final meeting be like? How would Harold and Maureen carry on from here? And then the end came and it wasn't what I expected or what I wanted, but I think it was probably how it should have ended. If that makes any sense at all.
Huge thanks to Laura and Katie for their fab reviews!
I'll be back in a month with two different bloggers and we'll be reading Black Diamonds by Catharine Bailey, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbon and Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell.