Bookclub Reads

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Our Souls At Night

A tender, contemplative novel about a late life relationship

This is the first book I have read by Kent Haruf, and it won’t be the last. It’s one of those tender, contemplative books in which nothing much happens but through which you feel your life has been immeasurably enhanced.

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Spring

A devastatingly truthful novel about the reality of a sexual affair

David Szalay was born in Canada but has been quite rightly described as a ‘very English novelist.’ In Spring, his third novel, he writes with humour and searing honesty about a relationship set in London one rainy spring. What makes this novel great is Szalay’s microscopic examination of the exquisite possibility of love versus the far more likely possibility of deep despair when this love isn’t reciprocated.

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The Quincunx

Lose yourself in this epic historical novel

I’ll admit right at the beginning of this review that I think this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. And I’m deeply envious of anyone who hasn’t yet discovered it. You have an enormous treat in store. I first read this epic novel in one long sitting from cover to cover in my early twenties and I’ve returned to it many times over the years, discovering something new on every fresh reading.

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The Sympathizer

Bitingly satirical portrait of post-Vietnam America

Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t shy away from the big issues in this Pulitzer Prize winning book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rarely have American double standards, displacement, issues of identity and cultural imperialism made me laugh so much. The Sympathizer (the author’s first!) is not a novel without flaws but Nguyen’s excellent writing, original angle and biting satire make up for the shortcomings.

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Finding Grace in Unlikely Places

A light and enjoyable novel following 10 year old Grace Elizabeth through the neighbourhood’s secrets, enlightenment, an other revelations. Some nimble nuggets of insight into the prejudices and solidarity within a 70s suburban street while she perseveres on her ‘search for Jesus’. Flawed, but certainly cleverer than it seems at first glance.

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The Easter Parade

Enduring American classic

After reading a few contemporary duds, I’ve taken refuge in the haven of mid-20th century American literature and read The Easter Parade by Richard Yates.  I adore literature from this era for it’s well-edited, unpretentious yet profound writing and I haven’t been disappointed this time either. We’re in 1930’s New York. Sarah and Emily are sisters and the children of divorced parents Pookie and Walter Grimes. The opening sentence sets the stage: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Expect no happy ending.

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Just Kids

The making of two artists

Ever wondered what is was like to be a hip New York City artist in the late 1960s? Well, no need to wonder any longer, Patti Smith will take you right there in this fascinating autobiography. Just Kids is the story of rock and roll chick Patti Smith’s love affair and artistic collaboration with photography’s bad boy Robert Mapplethorpe, from their first chance meeting in a shop to his death-bed only two decades later.

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My Name is Lucy Barton

Bland New York Times Bestseller

Hmm…not sure about this one. This best-seller (number one on the New York Times list) seemed somewhat tepid to me. My Name is Lucy Barton takes place in a hospital bedroom where our narrator, Lucy, receives a surprise visit from her estranged mother. Not much is said between mother and daughter, in fact, this novel is more about what isn’t said, but we do gather that Lucy has had a rough childhood, growing up in extreme poverty with distant and abusive parents. Despite it’s distressing themes, the characters remained somewhat lifeless, in particular, I struggled to be convinced by the tension between mother and daughter. For me, the best parts were the flashbacks to Lucy’s childhood and the descriptions of poverty and the stigma attached to it, but there weren’t enough of them. I also missed some more context, a better understanding of Lucy’s journey and of her husband who, like a lot of other characters, in this novel remains an enigma.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin, 196 pages.

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The Vegetarian

Weird and wonderful

‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.’ Thus starts the most unusual book I’ve read in a while, and stranger it gets. The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, is the tragic story of Yeong-hye, told by her husband, the cold Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful, manipulative artist and her selfless sister, In-hye.

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Les Blancs

Electrifying play about Africa, racism and white oppression

A gripping, encompassing, little known play ‘about Africa’. Set amongst a violent uprising and liberation of Africans (in fictional Zatembe), still in the throes of casting off the shackles of white rule, Hansberry’s drama wields a extensive cast of characters from each sphere of the debate, confronting self awareness (or indeed lack thereof), culpability, guilt, anger, retribution and the cost of real freedom. Tightly written and constructed, it examines the meaning of sacrifice, guilt, justification and retribution; definitions of race and racism, of well-intentioned but romanticised notions of empowerment and freedom; and the inevitability and immutability of revolt. All of which she manages to weave with consummate skill into a clattering finale – a phenomenal voice that should be heard more often, even today.

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