Tag Archives: England

Swing Time by Zadie Smith ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  453

Publication Date:  November 15, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)

 

A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues.  At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London.   They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites.  They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter.  The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother.  She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.

The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is  boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic.  The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others.  First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives.  Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent.  They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.

The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy.  The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family.  This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father.  Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family.  Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.

Jealousies arise and tensions result.  The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.”  Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed.  Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result.  Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator.  Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.

The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship.   After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against.  The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee.  Aimee’s life is large.  She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa.  The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another.  The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.

The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament.  The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation.  Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else.  She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,

When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be.  The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed.  After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.”  Are we our childhood selves?  Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with?  Is that identity forever changing?  How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race?  How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?

This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions.  There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time.  I highly recommend this book to everyone.  It would make a superb book club book.  My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book.  She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others.  Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel?  What effect does this have on the reader?
  2. Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator.   Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s  father drew a wedge in their friendship.  Do you believe Tracey’s story?
  3. Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
  4. The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery.  She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own.  What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
  5. Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing.  How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience?  Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
  6. Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
  7. Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
  8. The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind.  The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing.  How is this a coming of age moment?
  9. Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
  10. Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
  11. Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing.  What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
  12. When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own.  Why?  Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
  13. Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
  14. Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa.  How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things?  Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
  15. The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends.  Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
  16. Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends?  What is her intent?

 

 

New York Times Review by Holly Bass

Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici

Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR

 

 

 

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 371

Published: November 9, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

This book is fabulous.  I don’t usually gush about thrillers, but this one I just might!  The twists are what make this book so interesting, keeping you on the edge of your seat.  I listened to the audible version and loved it.  I thought the two narrators, Nicola Barber and Steven Crossley, did an incredible job, each very compelling in their roles.  The characters in this novel are all so well developed that you quickly begin developing feelings about them, both good and bad.

This is a police thriller.  The novel starts out with a mother walking home with her 5 year old son, Jacob, on a rainy afternoon after school. As he runs ahead of her to cross the street to their home,  a car comes speeding around the corner striking and killing the boy on impact.  The grief-stricken mother does not get a good look at the driver because of the heavy rainfall and the driver backs up, turns around, speeding away.   She withdraws into her own guilt, stating she only let go for a second.

Ray and Kate are two detectives involved in investigating this case.  During their investigation they become uncomfortably close, despite the fact that Ray is married.  Because he and Kate spend so much time together, he finds himself talking to Kate more easily about problems at home and with his children than he does with his wife.

Jenna Gray is so upset because in her mind she is guilty of the murder of her son.  She keeps thinking, “I let you go.”  She runs away escaping to Wales, dropping her cell phone in a puddle, renting out a small cottage, retreating into solitude. One day she rescues a dog that’s been tossed to the side of the road in a bag with another that has already died.  She takes it to the local vet, Patrick, who convinces her to keep the dog, whom she names Beau.  She and Patrick begin spending more time with each other.  It seems she is slowly beginning to recover from her trauma.  She is trusting herself more, developing affection for Patrick, and finding joy in her photography.  It is all interrupted by a knock on the door by Ray and Kate.  Thus ends Part 1 and begins Part 2, which I cannot say anything about without giving away too much.

The novel moves swiftly from there.  It is cunning, well-written and superbly crafted, such that this twist will take your breath away wondering how it could be, how you could have gotten it wrong.  It’s a compelling, thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable book!  I highly recommend it.  

 

Penfach is a fictionalized Welsh town on the lower Gower Peninsula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What did you expect was going on with Ray and Mag’s son?  Were you surprised at the truth?
  2. When Jenna Gray is narrating in Part one, did you think she was the mother of the 5 year old boy, the murderer or someone else?  I was certain she was the mother of the 5 year old boy.  What clues were present that would have told us this was not the case?
  3. Compare and contrast the relationship Ray has with Mags to that he has with Kate.  What is it about Kate that appeals to Ray?
  4. Which characters do the words “I let you go” apply to?  Explain.
  5. Discuss Jenna’s mental state when she is living in Wales.  She is fearful of people, experiencing nightmares, and does not trust herself to make decisions.  How did you interpret this when you thought she was the mother of the 5 year old boys?  How do you interpret this knowing who she is?
  6. Why do you think Jenna yearns so much for solitude?
  7. Why do you think Jenna finds relief in being accused of murder?
  8. Discuss the reaction of the villagers in Penfach to Jenna’s arrest.
  9. Discuss the relationship between Eve and Jenna.  What has driven them apart and what brings them back together?
  10. We never found out what happened to Marie, Ian’s previous significant other.  Do you think she made it out alive?  What do you suppose happened to her?
  11. What do you make of the epilogue?  Is Ian still alive or is it only the memory of domestic abuse that will never die?
  12. How do you imagine Jenna’s future unfolds?

Clare Mackintosh’s website

Fellow Blogger, Novel Gossip’s Review

Review by “The Bookworm’s Fantasy” Blog

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman ~ Book Review

2213661Pages:  312

Published: September 30, 2008

Literary Awards:  Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Newbery Medal (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (2009), Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year (2009), Michigan Library Association Thumbs Up! Award Nominee (2009), Indies Choice Book Award for Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book (Fiction): (2009), Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award (ALAN/NCTE) Nominee (2009), British Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fantasy & Science Fiction (2008), Carnegie Medal (2010), Elizabeth Burr / Worzalla Award (2009)

Format: Audiobook

“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

I picked this up to listen to on a car trip with my children.  I think my young children were scared or turned off by the no frills triple murder with which the novel begins.  I, however, was enthralled and could not wait to listen to it each time I got into my car.  When reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I fell in love with his brilliant writing style then.   I was hoping to share that experience with my children…  Maybe in a few years.   Having this book read by the author himself was pure delight.  His English accent and the manner in which he was able to do different voices for the various characters really brought the story to life.  I realized after the fact that there are actually two versions of this audible book.  I listened to the one with Neil Gaiman as the sole narrator, but there is another one with a full cast of narrators.

The storyline itself is enchanting.  I was mesmerized!  I felt my skin prickle in anticipation of what was coming next.  The characters were fabulous.  The plot is complex, yet everything came full circle throughout the novel.  It is a huge puzzle in which all the pieces had just the right fit.  Every bit of this novel is delicious perfection.  It is a brilliant, magical, dreamy, fantastical world and everyone should read or listen to this.  As you can see from all the awards this novel has won, I am not alone in feeling this way!  images

 

Lit lovers Discussion Guide

Harper Collins Reading Group Guide

Reproducible Study Guide for the book – meant for teaching purposes

 

 

 

 

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

25776122

Pages:  496

Expected Publication:  March 22, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This historical fiction novel is set in the idyllic countryside of Rye the summer before England enters WW1.  It begins as a comedy of manners as Beatrice Nash arrives at the home of Agatha and John Kent to be the new Latin teacher in Rye.  Agatha’s nephews are there for the summer as well and there develops a romantic interest between Beatrice who has decided not to marry and one of the nephews who had planned on proposing to another woman.  The social milieu of the time is explored throughout this book.   The book explores society’s reaction to divorce, upward mobility, women’s rights, homosexuality, pregnancy outside of marriage (even if the result of rape).    The scope of this book is large.   The reader gets to know the Kents, their nephews, and Beatrice intimately through this novel, as well as their closest friends and associates.  You learn how the politics and society are deeply entangled in the way the town functions and decisions are made.

All plans for the future are turned on their head with the start of the war, however.  First, refugees from Belgium arrive and are taken in by various residents of Rye.  After getting to know and love so many young people in this idyllic setting, the young men begin going off to war.  Some are injured, some are killed; all are affected by the war in different ways.  People come together in ways they wouldn’t have pre-war.  You watch the social fabric and rules start to change in subtle ways.  There is a dramatic shift from prewar to wartime notable in the pace of events.  The speech even changes from verbose to succinct.  As Daniel says to Hugh, “War makes our needs so much smaller.  In ordinary life, I never understood how much pleasure it gives me to see you.”  The characters realize more than ever, through war, what and who is most important to them.

I loved the characters, the hilarity of the social scenes, the budding romance between Hugh and Beatrice.  I loved the social banter, the eloquent wordy ways in which they would argue and criticise each other, especially pre-war.  The characters were very well developed such that I truly cared about them, who they ended up with, and how they fared.  I thought that the contrast between the pre-war scenes and after war was declared very well done.  The final reveal in the epilogue was something I had been wondering the entire book, and I was glad that that piece finally came to light.  I gave this novel  images-2  for a brilliantly written, enjoyable novel complete with family drama, societal etiquette,  romance, and major societal commentaries on the values held by the people in England at the time.

My favorite laugh-out-loud scene in the book is when Agatha Kent and Beatrice Nash are naked sunbathing in Agatha’s garden the morning following Beatrice’s arrival in Rye.

East_Sussex_Map

 

Map of East Sussex, where Rye is

 

 

 

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

 

Map demonstrating the military alliances of the time

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who was your favorite character and why?
  2. Why did you think Agatha Kent favored Daniel over Hugh?  Did this change after reading the epilogue?
  3. How would you describe Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore?
  4. Why does Lord North dislike Daniel?
  5. How would you describe Hugh’s relationship with Lucy Ramsey?
  6. Is the role of social class and standing more or less important in this novel than it is in modern day England?
  7. How would you describe Snout?
  8. Why did the school not want Snout to take the Latin examinations?
  9. Why do you think the Marbely’s felt that Beatrice needed someone to overlook her finances?
  10. What was the common view of the suffragettes?
  11. How does Agatha Kent wield power in this novel?
  12. What are the accepted roles of women in this novel?
  13. Why do you suppose that Celeste’s father sacrificed her to the Germans that were burning their city?
  14. What is the real reason that the German nanny is sent to America?
  15. What is your opinion of Mr. Tillingham?

 

Helen Simonson’s website

New York Times Review

Lit Lover’s Discussion Guide