Tag Archives: London

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  307

Published:  January 31, 2017

Format:  Audio Book

 

 

 

 

This thriller alternates between the perspectives of two women, Adele and Louise.  It also alternates between Adele’s past and present.  Louise is a divorcee and single mother who begins an affair with her married boss, David.  Soon after, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and they start a friendship.  From Adele’s perspective, we know the the meeting was not mere coincidence.  However, the reader is unsure what secrets lurk beneath the surface nor the reasons behind the forced meeting.  Louise is charmed and won over by both Adele and David.  Adele pleads with Louise to keep their friendship secret because David prefers to “compartmentalize” and Louise gladly agrees, as this allows her to spend time with both members of this couple whom she views as such wonderful creatures.

Despite the fact that Louise finds Adele and David to be so wonderfully charming, the reader (or at least me) found all three of the characters to be unlikeable.  David appeared to be a shell of a person, making poor choices, hiding away secrets and drinking constantly.  Adele appeared to be manipulative, two-faced, self-absorbed, and mentally unstable.  Louise was perhaps the craziest of them all, having only accidentally stumbled into this couple and immediately getting wrapped up in their drama.  She was an easy target, dishonest, easily manipulated, and having an affair with her so called best friend.  She dropped Sophie, her best friend of years, after befriending Adelle and not liking the advice Sophie had given her regarding Louise’s relationships with this couple.

The story line and writing were ok, but not great. I was intrigued in the beginning, but found the story lacking in depth.  Louise and Adele were so enraptured with David, however, I did not feel his character was developed enough to understand why.  Yes, David felt trapped by Adele, but why feel it is his obligation to stay with her?  I found it difficult to see how and why he felt he could control her, as repeatedly Adele proved he couldn’t.  Then, when the thriller took a trip into the paranormal with it’s twists at the end, I really felt cheated of a normal ending.  It felt like the author was writing this as if we should believe that type of thing is entirely possible.  Many parts of this book, with both the coincidences and the choices the characters made required a leap of faith to accept.  Then, to add a paranormal ending, for me, required  tremendous suspension of reality.  I know many people loved this book and the ending and it is one of the best selling books this year, but for me it was not great.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Which of the three main characters did you like best?  Did you find Adele or David more believable?  Did this change as the novel progressed?
  2. How did you feel about the choices that Louise made?  Could you justify to yourself why she was keeping up the charade and getting closer to both Adele and David?
  3. What were your suspicions about what the ending might be?  Would you ever have imagined the ending that came?  How did you feel about the ending?
  4. When Adele seems to know what is happening between David and Louise, what are your suspicions on how she is spying?
  5. There is a side story of Louise’s son Adam, Louise’s ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend.  What does this side story add to the novel?
  6. Adele is fixated on improving Louise.  She gets her a gym membership and has her switch to e-cigarettes.  Why did you imagine Adele was so invested in Louise?
  7. Adele teaches Louise how to use lucid dreaming to control her night terrors.  This evolved into out of body experiences.  How did you feel about this paranormal evolution on lucid dreaming within the context of the novel?
  8. The meaning of the title does not become apparent until the end of this novel.  What did you think the meaning of the title was prior to getting to the end of the book?
  9. Would you recommend this novel to a friend?  Why or why not?

 

Negative Review by Zoe at The Sporadic Reviews of a Beginner Blogger

Positive Review by Luccia Gray at Rereading Jane Eyre

 

 

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, which by geographical description can be identified as Gambia.  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.

Quotes from the Book:

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”

“People aren’t poor because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because they’re poor.”

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

 

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

 

 

 

High Rise by J. G. Ballard ~ Book & Movie Review

 

 

12331767

 

Pages: 208

Published: 1975

Format:  E-book

Movie Released: April 28, 2016 in USA

 

 

High Rise is a horrific novel about a building that begins to have a strange hold over its residents.  The high rise is a virtual vertical city, with the higher levels representing higher social class status.  The building has it’s own school, restaurants, pools, grocery store.  The only reason for its’ residents to leave is to go to work.  The residents begin to throw louder and wilder parties and begin leaving the building less and less often to go to work.  Often if they do go, they rest at work for a few hours and then return to the high rise, or they may get to their car and then turn right around and go back to the high rise.   The parties turn to violence, vandalism, voyeurism, raiding, raping,  murder and cannibalism with the ultimate goal being survival of the fittest.  The characters become either checked out or fully engrossed in the “game” they are playing.   Although there is some hope they will get caught, no one ever bothers to call the police or seek outside help.  The men and women revert to hunter/gatherer roles.  The women seem banded together by the end and it appears the women have come out on top, however, no one really is a winner in this book.  Reading this novel from 1975 did not feel much like I had jumped back in time with the exception of the polaroid cameras and lack of cell phones/social media.  This novel was many things at once:  a horror story, a dystopian science fiction story,  and most impressively a chilling social commentary.   It  is a commentary on the psychological effects of modernization and technological advancement.  This advancement leads to an increasingly fragmented and socially insular society that yearns for more connectedness even if that connectedness is horrific. The writing was excellent and I look forward to watching the movie.  images-2

 

images-1

images

Interestingly, J. G. Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) grew up in in Shanghai, which came under Japanese control in 1943.  He spent 2 years in an internment camp with his family.  Presumably this early exposure to the atrocities of war shaped his writing and the horror it contains.  In 1945, he returned to Britain with his mother and sister.  He began medical school in 1951 with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist, however, abandoned his medical studies 2 years later, to pursue a career in writing.  Since then, he led an incredibly interesting life with various twists and turns.  His wife and mother of his 3 children died young of pneumonia and he was left to raise 3 children.  He has had movies and television series made of his stories and novels.  He has influenced the genre of dystopian science fiction literature, art and music.  With the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition, there was an obscenity trial and in the United States, the publisher destroyed nearly all of the print.  He had become an icon with this work.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who ends up on top, the women or the men?
  2. How is this book a literal struggle to the top?
  3. How are the characters psychologically affected?  Why do they become that way?
  4. How do you think J. G. Ballard’s background affected his writing?
  5. Laing isn’t sure if what is happening is all in his head.  Could the building be a Freudian representation of himself?
  6. Debate which the better, the movie or the book?

Review at Fantasy Book Review

Book/Movie Comparison:

I watched the movie shortly after finishing the book.  I thought it had a similar dreamlike surreal quality to it.  The events occurring in the book are horrific and repulsive yet somehow, in both reading the book and watching the movie, I felt ok with it.  I was interested, intrigued, waiting for what was next, almost complicit in the act of chaos and abandon that the characters/actors demonstrate.

The movie rendition is mostly true to the book.  I did think that children figured more prominently in the movie than they had in the book.  It’s a movie that’s interesting to watch after reading the book and understanding the author, his background and the year in which it was written.  Given the graphic content contained within the movie, it is not a movie for everyone.  If you can stomach, I highly recommend watching it if you’ve read the book!

Review of the Film as published in The Telegraph

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis ~ Book Review

 

65605

 

Pages: 221

Published:  1955

Format:  Soft covered book

 

 

 

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and was excited to read this with my 8 year old son.   As a child, I loved the magic and beauty contained in these other worlds.  As an adult, I now see the parallels to the bible, and the messages it is intending to teach.   The ending of the book is actually a retelling of sorts of the story of creation from the bible.    I must say my remembrance of the book was that of a 5 star read, but in re-reading it, I can only give images-2.  My son, although very interested and attuned to the storyline throughout, I think would agree.

I will keep this review short as there is so much already written about this novel and instead of providing discussion questions, I will simply provide links.

Discussion Questions from Charlevoix Library

Study Questions from Oxford Tutorials

Official website of C. S. Lewis

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

25814512

Pages: 432

Expected Publication:  May 3, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

Chris Cleave is a very talented writer who understands people and relationships so well.  Having loved his novel Little Bee,  I was very excited to read this book.  In this epic WW2 historical fiction novel, he deftly describes the area, the people and their relationships as shaped by love, war, and other circumstances.  This novel follows two main characters Alistair and Mary through their experience of the war and how it they cope with loss, love, and various other hardships.

It is a coming-of-age novel about Mary North who suddenly steps out of her life of luxury with the onset of war and puts herself to work as a teacher, falls in love, experiences loss, addiction and many more effects of the war.  There is so much truth to relationships (romantic and non-romantic) as depicted in this novel…the deep hurts they can cause but the huge love and support that is there if both parties are open to it.

I found it interesting and heartbreaking to read about the race relationships of the time in England.   Chris Cleave cleverly shows how people will play the roles they are ascribed to in order to not rock the boat.

There is so much to this book!  Excellent writing, beautiful character  and relationship development, and well researched history.  For whatever reason, perhaps the state of mind I was while reading, it felt lengthy and I felt like I was struggling to get through it at times.  For this reason, I can only give it 3-stars

Click here to see an interactive historical map of London from this time period.

malta-master-final

 

 

map of Malta, 1941-1942

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Describe Hilda and Mary’s friendship.  How is it affected by their appearances?
  2. What is it about teaching that Mary loves?
  3. Why do you think Mary is drawn into helping Zachary?
  4. What do you think Mary loved about Tom?
  5. How did you feel about her falling for Alistair while Tom was still alive?
  6. What is the meaning of the title?
  7. Why do you think Alistair has his friend, Simonson, start to write to Hilda?
  8. When Alistair returns to the war, why are Mary and Alistair initially strange with each other?

 

Simon & Schuster Reading Group Guide

Chris Cleave’s website