Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Bailieborough Library Reading Group Members read Aardvark Bureau Books

Not too long ago I came across an amazing opportunity on Facebook. Aardvark Bureau was offering titles from its latest catalogue to reading groups to read and review. I inquired and was happily surprised to learn that my group could participate, despite being located in Ireland rather than the UK.

It wasn’t long before I received a package containing eight books, one each for every member in my group. I allowed my members to pick the title they thought they’d enjoy most and asked them to write me one paragraph expressing what they thought about the book. Below you’ll find information about each title as well as my members’ thoughts on them. The blurbs and covers as shown were taken from Goodreads.

This month the members of Cootehill Library Reading Group will be reading the same books. A report of their thoughts will follow.

The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson

The blurb:

A captivating zoological, mathematical, technological, grammatical, architectural, aeronautical literary thriller – unlike anything you’ve read before.

-- Obituary: the Norwegian-British logician, linguist and dream theorist Edvard Tøssentern is unaccounted for, and presumed to have died when the research balloon Abel disappeared during a severe storm over the South China Sea. --

When Edvard Tøssentern, the missing author of studies of the mysterious flesh-eating weaver fish, staggers in from a remote swamp, his colleagues at the research station on the island of Ferendes are overjoyed. But Edvard’s discovery about a rare giant bird throws them all into the path of a dangerous international crime ring.

Part-thriller, part-literary and mathematical puzzle, this unique, bold and playful debut engages the reader in an exhilarating game, challenging everything we know – or think we know – about language, morality and truth.

Reader’s thoughts

‘This could possibly be described as one of the cleverest books ever, but I can’t say so as most of it I did not understand. Now, I think it is a supreme spoof from beginning to end, but because I’m so abysmally ignorant of the subtleties of science and mathematics I am not in a position to comment. It can change from chapter to chapter from paragraphs and footnotes—that are a complete mystery to me—to page turning thriller, again hard to keep up with as some of these lines are extremely clever, fast paced and funny. One cannot help thinking of a late Terry Pratchett’s influence on where the imagination might go, especially with names and identities of characters. As with all clever books like ‘The Weaver Fish’ one’s thoughts can turn to real life serious situations, but one might need to sit quietly in a corner and think about it all! A strange read—good in parts. I would rate it 2.5 stars.’

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

The blurb:

Tracy Farr’s acclaimed debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, junkie.

Lena is Music’s Most Modern Musician; the first theremin player of the twentieth century.

From a solitary childhood in Malacca and a Perth boarding school to a glittering career in Jazz-age Sydney and a defining relationship with bohemian artist Beatrix Carmichael, Lena’s is a life shaped by the pull of the sea, the ebb and flow of passion and loss, and that extraordinary instrument, the theremin.

Reader’s thoughts:

This reader had not finished the book by the time the discussion took place. The following is what she had to say about the story so far.

‘This book is written with magical descriptions, contrasting time journeys and vibrant places. It involves a very strange musical instrument that only exists in this novel and the life story of a lady, now in her eighties.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book.’

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman

The blurb:

The rise and fall of the 'Garbo of the skies', as told by one of New Zealand's finest novelists

Jean Batten became an international icon in 1930s. A brave, beautiful woman, she made a number of heroic solo flights across the world. The newspapers couldn't get enough of her.

In 1934, she broke Amy Johnson's flight time between England and Australia by six days. The following year, she was the first woman to make the return flight. In 1936, she made the first ever direct flight between England and New Zealand and then the fastest ever trans-Tasman flight. Jean Batten stood for adventure, daring, exploration and glamour.

The Second World War ended Jean's flying adventures. She suddenly slipped out of view, disappearing to the Caribbean with her mother and eventually dying in Majorca, buried in a pauper's grave. Fiona Kidman's enthralling novel delves into the life of this enigmatic woman. It is a fascinating exploration of early aviation, of fame, and of secrecy.

Reader’s thoughts:

‘I was fascinated by this book. I enjoyed all the details about Jean, her childhood, her love of flying and the rest of her life after she’d achieved her amazing feat. I also loved the little aeroplane icons in the book. I would rate this book 4.5 stars.’

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

The blurb:

Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins, lives on a sprawling estate, cut off from a threatening world. One day, his housekeeper, Engel, discovers a baby left on the doorstep. Soon more children arrive, among them the stern, watchful David. With the help of Engel and town physician Doctor Crane, Morgan takes the children in, allowing them to explore the mansion…and to begin to uncover the strange and disturbing secrets it holds.

Cloaked in eerie atmosphere, this distorted fairy tale and the unsettling questions it raises will stay with the reader long after the final page.

Reader’s thoughts:

‘The Children’s Home may well be the most surprising, thought provoking and also baffling book I’ve ever read. In many ways this book reminded me of poetry in that both the story and the way in which it is told leave almost everything open to interpretation by the reader. I can’t help feeling that this book will tell a slightly different story to each individual reader.

To me this book read as a study in contrasts. The tone of the story is observational, descriptive and distant, as if none of the events described are of any great importance. At the same time those same events are shocking and often gruesome.

Did I fully understand this story, its implications or its message? No, I am sure I did not. However, the resulting sense of mystery didn’t frustrate me, quite the opposite in fact. It left me with a sense of wonder, with questions and possible answers to ponder long after I finished reading. I rated this truly captivating story 4.5 stars.’

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow by Dan Rhodes

The blurb:

Everybody at the Women’s Institute in the village of Upper Bottom is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a very special guest speaker: the world famous evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins.

But with a blizzard setting in, their visitor finds himself trapped in the nearby town of Market Horten, with no choice but to take lodgings with the local Anglican vicar.

Will the professor be able to abide by his motto – cordiality always – while surrounded by Christians? Will he ever reach Upper Bottom? And can his assistant, Smee, save the day?

Reader’s thoughts:

‘Oh, what fun! I was only sorry I had finished the book because I wanted to have it to read again for the first time. As the story unfolds almost every page has laugh-out-loud lines and all of these are genuinely funny and original. Because of the twist near the end, which may well be foreseen as the story unfolds, one cannot say too much about it. When the twist leads to yet another surprise one concludes that this is one of the best non-stop light reads. I rate it 4 stars.’

The Miner by Natsume Soseki

The blurb:

The Miner is the most daringly experimental and least well known novel of the great Meiji novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916).

Written in 1908, it is an absurdist novel about the indeterminate nature of human personality, which in many respects anticipates the work of Joyce and Beckett. Virtually devoid of plot and characterization, it unfolds entirely within the mind of the unnamed protagonist. Focusing on a young man whose love life has fallen to pieces, The Miner follows him as he flees from Tokyo, is picked up by a procurer of cheap labor for a copper mine, and then travels toward - and finally burrows into the depths of - the mine where he hopes to find oblivion.

The young man reflects at length on nearly every thought and perception he experiences along the way, in terms of what the experience means to him at the time and in retrospect as a mature adult narrating the tale. The narrator concludes that there is no such thing as human character, and the many passages in which he ruminates on the nature of personality constitute the theoretical core of the book. The intellectual distancing carries over into the style of writing as well, and instead of a tragedy of alienation, we find here an absurdist - truly absurd and comical - allegory of descent into the psyche.

Reader’s thoughts:

‘This is an astonishing book: astonishing in so many ways, but absolutely astonishing in that it is a page turner!

Written in 1908 by a Japanese master novelist, this is the story of a young man leaving home in Tokyo, loosing face over some romantic misdemeanour and ending up spending a day in a copper mine. We spend this day with him in his head through all the awfulness of the day, following every move and feeling such relief as we surface, reading excitedly on to the last page to see what he does with his experience of that day. This is a read where one can be totally absorbed with one other person, mostly over one day, from beginning to end. I rate it 4 stars.’

The Last Pier by Roma Tearne

The blurb:

The summer of 1939 broke the Maudsley family. Cecily was only 13-years-old and desperate to grow up; desperate to be as beautiful and desired and reckless as her older sister Rose. Now, in her 40s, the family resemblance is uncanny, but Cecily is a shadow of her former self. A part of her died that fateful summer.

Returning to the deserted family farm as an adult, Cecily recalls the light before the storm, before the war came and before the terrible family tragedy. It was a summer of laughter and ice cream, promises and first love. She remembers her father’s unrequited love for her, her melancholy mother, and her brittle and argumentative aunt Kitty, and how everyone, somehow, was guarding a secret. None more so than the impossibly beautiful Rose. And in her childhood innocence, between snatches of misunderstood conversations, Cecily helps set in motion a chain of devastating events.

Wandering through the family home 29 years later, Cecily hopes to lay some ghosts to rest but the past has yet to give up some shocking secrets.

Reader’s thoughts:

‘Initially, the plot of “The Last Pier” reminded me of “Atonement”, the main character, a young girl, Cecily, on the cusp of adolescence trying to copy her very beautiful, annoying older sister, Rose, jealous and envious of the freedoms she exploited being older. The novel compares the wealthy British landed family to a working class first generation Italian family. The descriptions of the pastoral setting were delightfully painted by the author, but underlying there was an ever present feeling of approaching doom.

The construction of the novel, jumping from the eve of World War II to September 1968, when Cecily was a mature forty-something led to quite a bit of confusion as to what happened that Rose died at seventeen at the outbreak of the war and did not always lead to clarifying the many twists and turns of the plot. In my view, the reader was being manipulated and the story would have worked better if the plot had been handled in a more straight forward manner.

However, “The Last Pier” was an engaging and atmospheric page-turner and the author keeps the reader guessing to the very end as to the different fates of her characters. I would score “The Last Pier” 4 stars.’

Max Gate by Damien Wilkins:

The blurb:

1928: Thomas Hardy is dying in the upstairs room of Max Gate, the house he built in his beloved Dorset. Downstairs, his literary friends are locked in a bitter fight with local supporters. Who owns Hardy’s remains? Who knew him best? What are the secrets of Max Gate?

Housemaid Nellie Titterington narrates this earthy and emotionally-charged novel about ambition, duty, belonging, and love.

Reader’s thoughts:

‘This novel is Wilkins’ imagining of one of the housemaid’s (Nellie) relating off the events immediately before and after Hardy’s death in Max Gate. Nellie reminisces about Hardy’s first wife, Emma—now dead—and his second wife, Florence. She also relates the seemingly endless discussions as to where Hardy should be buried—Westminster Abbey or the local churchyard. Also, who owns his remaining works, the nation or his family? The story also conveys the austerity of the 1920’s.

I found this story rather rambling at times and, on occasion, difficult to follow. One wonders if the writer grew enchanted with his (Nellie’s) powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling. It is, nonetheless, a worthy read and I would grade it 3 stars.’

On behalf of the members of the Bailieborough Reading Group and the County Cavan Library service I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to Aardvark bureau. 

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