Hello everyone! Joining me for Blogging Good Read this month are Gwen from The Foodie Historian and Gemma from Fat Frocks. So, what did we find ourselves reading?
Gwen chose We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler:
I'd heard really good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but couldn't get my head around how it could be that good when my other Karen Joy Fowler experience was The Jane Austen Book Club. If I'm honest - I'm still not completely sure about it. It didn't grip me in the way I had hoped, and I found the lead character quite irritating. The time-hopping narrative style didn't really draw me in, even though it was actually quite a clever way of telling the story, and unusually done - the story was told more in themes than a linear way.
Because I knew next to nothing about the book, I didn't "see" the twist coming (I won't reveal it just in case you're also completely in the dark) and was genuinely shocked by it, but after it was out in the open it felt more like a campaign manifesto in parts than a novel about a dysfunctional family. There were really quite traumatic details that I wasn't expecting - animal based, nothing in a Dave Peltzer zone - and that instantly turned me off. Maybe I'm just too much of a softie to read a painful book. Saying that though I did think it was well researched and written (I loved how the philosophy was weaved in) and a great read for anyone interested in family dynamics - just not my cup of tea.
I'm still not entirely sure how much I liked this book. Rosemary annoyed me a lot at the beginning - that sort of slightly arch, socially awkward, loner narrator is a very polarizing thing and it's not one that I particularly enjoy. It grated on me in books like Penelope and Prep and it did the same here. I persevered though and as the book went on, it did improve. The twist isn't what I was expecting at all and so it got much better when that was being unfolded and the story wasn't all about Rosemary and how difficult she found school and college.
I still can't quite work out how it got shortlisted for some of the awards it did. It's decent but not exactly outstandingly well written. Perhaps the issues it discusses helped it along a bit? They're done fairly well without shoving too much of a political agenda down the reader's throat. It's still not the sort of book I'd be hurrying to recommend to people though.
What did Gemma think of it?
I had a lot of high hopes for this book, it’s had rave reviews and was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize so it had a lot to live up to. On the surface, the novel is about the Cooke family. This dysfunctional family consists of a psychologist father who specializes in animal behaviour, an emotionally fragile mother and three children: Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. One daughter mysteriously vanishes, the other changes from a very chatty child to a silent adult and the brother runs away. Underneath this basic family story there is a terrible and beautiful secret.
I’m not sure how to talk about this book without revealing the big twist but the slow dawning of awareness before the huge revelation on p77 was both amazing and awful. The book looks at what it is to be human, explores how we treat animals and explores some really difficult issues but also has some comic moments. I don’t know if it quite lives up to the hype but I’d say it’s interesting and well worth a read and if you don’t have a lump in your throat at some point during the book you’ve got a heart of stone.
Gemma picked Vivian Versus the Apocalypse by Katie Coyle:
I know it’s hard to believe but there’s a young adult book where the female protagonist has agency, isn’t interested in vampires or magic and isn’t worried about how she looks. Viv is a badass because in the post rapture world she needs to be like that.
It is set in the US directly after several thousands of 'believers' have disappeared after the ‘rapture’ as prophesied by the Church of America but it’s not as simple as that as soon as Vivian and her friends dig a little deeper they start to find out the terrifying truth. Vivian returns home from an ironic end-of-the-world party to discover her parents are missing and what follows is a story of friendship and a rite of passage road trip. Vivian has to grow up quickly as she goes through abandonment and danger. Her friends join her on the journey and I like Harp who seems so strong on the outside and there’s dependable Peter.
I’m a fan of YA books and I see no shame in it but some books of that genre can be love story, stereotype laden trash. This is Young Adult writing at its best as it is controversial and intelligent.
You can see how the events could unfold in real life today with cults and religious fanaticism like the Islamic State taking hold. I felt really uncomfortable at the end because something like this could happen and how would I react?
I’ve already bought the sequel, I NEED to know what happens to Viv and the post rapture world.
Did Gwen enjoy it?
I'd not heard of this one and it really wasn't the type of book I'd normally pick (I usually stay away from anything remotely sci-fi, and tend to steer in the opposite direction to teen fiction). I will quite happily say thought that my initial prejudices were wrong, and I really enjoyed it. I found the characters surprisingly realistic the more we got to know them, their reactions to difficult situations (booze, normally) and the bickering was all reminiscent of actually being eighteen. Coyle managed to toe the line between irritating characters, and realistic flaws pretty well.
The story itself - about a new religion which appears to correctly identify the date of the apocalypse - I thought was really well executed. For a tale which span almost a year it was fast paced, and I enjoyed getting to know more about what may have actually happened as the characters did. I find that sometimes in "unusual situation" books the characters keep things from the audience, or the narrator lets the secret slip but because so much of this book is based on conversation, it unravelled quite naturally.
My only criticism is that the ending - which was nicely handled, I wasn't sure where it was going to go - was a bit fast for my likes. I might have to re-read the last couple of chapters in a week or two if I've not remembered it all.
Oh my gosh, I loved this book. I think I've mentioned before that my tolerance for YA fiction is limited - always so full of vampires or issues or the end of the world - so even the title of this didn't exactly fill me with joy but as soon as I started reading it I was hooked. It is so clever. Unlike lots of other books in the genre where you just can't believe or buy into the initial premise of the story, this was eerily realistic. It's not far fetched: the way recent events in the world are panning out, you can easily imagine that it wouldn't take too much more of things going wrong before people did start to lean on a new religion as some form of salvation. The insidious way that the Church of America starts to take over things is so possible that it's truly unsettling.
Vivian is a great character and the rest of the book is populated by interesting, non-stereotypical people. They all have flaws and none of them are perfect - rare in a lot of YA books! It romps along, covering quite a long span of time and it's always a mark of a good author that they can manage this without making you feel like bits have been left out or skimmed over.
How much did I like it? I stayed up till 2am to finish it and then immediately bought and read the sequel. It's so good.
My selection was 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:
I picked this book mostly because it seemed like time for another Agatha Christie and because I know Gemma likes trains, haha! However, Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of my absolute favourite characters in all literature. She's just so competent. I want to be like her when I grow up.
This is technically a Miss Marple story but not in the traditional sense. One of her friends is on a train (the titular 4.50 From Paddington) and sees a man in another train strangling a woman. Unfortunately there's no sign of a body and the police are somewhat suspicious that anything actually happened. As Miss Marple is convinced that something did, naturally the only thing for her to do is send along Lucy Eyelesbarrow (profession: Domestic Help and general organisational goddess) to get a job at the local country house and do some snooping around on her behalf.
The majority of the story takes place at Rutherford Hall with various members of the Crackenthorpe family swirling around. I really enjoy the setting of this book - the house isn't the typical mansion and the family aren't the typical aristos. The two boys that are staying there for the summer holidays are a particular highlight. So, does Lucy find some clues? Does Miss Marple solve the murder? Of course! Wouldn't be an Agatha Christie mystery without a good satisfying ending, would it? That's the joy of her books; you get swept along with the story and know it's all going to wrap up beautifully.
What did Gwen think of it?
I'd not read this one before, despite being quite a big Agatha Christie fan. I listened to it on audiobook, read by Joan Hickson, who was perfect. She just is Miss Marple. However - Miss Marple isn't really in this one much, and I think that's why I didn't enjoy it as much as others. The charm and powers of her reasoning (Miss Marple is a wonder for matching murderous situations to small time scandal in her home town) were lost, and that's what makes Agatha Christie's stories so enjoyable normally.
Even though it wasn't quite as riveting as I'd hoped, I still enjoyed the story and the mysterious romp, and I found it strangely comforting.
How about Gemma?
I was really excited to find that Alex had chosen this, I’m a big train geek but I’m not interested in the engines or anything technical. I’m interested in the train lines and the history of the towns along them and why people are getting a train, where are they going?
The story starts with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessing the murder of a woman in a train that passes along side the one she is riding in, but after some investigation by the train authorities, the woman's body is not to be found. Elspeth brings the matter to her friend and master sleuth, Miss Marple. Unable to physically look for the body herself, Miss Marple enlists Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do the some of the footwork. I liked Lucy, she was quite a sympathetic independent women for fiction of the time. Lucy was portrayed as intelligent and hardworking rather than an unmarried old maid. I can’t say I understand Lucy’s life choices, why would a maths graduate want to clean up after a bratty rich family and be ordered around?
The Crackenthorpes at Rutheford Hall where the story centres are an odd and hard to like family and I suspected them all of the murder at some point. I did find that there weren’t many clues taking us step by step closer to solving the mystery, I really had no idea who murdered the lady on the train until the big reveal at the end.
I've never read any Agatha Christie before, can you believe that? I’m also not a fan of crime fiction so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It was delightfully English and quite charming. I’ve already borrowed some of her other books including The Body in the Library and The Mystery of the Blue Train.
Thank you Gwen and Gemma! What good books we had this month. I don't think I'd have picked up either of the first two unless they'd been selected for BGR so thank you for making me read them.
I'll be back this time next month and we'll be reading Queen Mab
by Kate Danley, Sister by Rosamund Lupton and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. If you want to read along and then join in the discussion in the comments section of the post, please do! I've had quite a few people recently either asking about or being recommended to me for a blogging book club and although BGR isn't quite that format, I'd definitely like to increase the amount of comments/discussion about the books. I love the months when lots of you have got things to say about the titles we've been reading.